Starting next week, those early risers who bound from bed and rush to the TV to catch the 6 a.m. test pattern or farm report will be in for a rude awakening. Worried about conceding a future audience to cable TV news, NBC’s Today show has decided to add a 30-minute early-bird segment beginning at 6 a.m. (6:30 a.m. in some parts of the country) to meet the challenge. Unfortunately for co-host Bryant Gumbel, 33, the personable sportscaster who took over the demanding Today co-anchor slot from Tom Brokaw six months ago, there’s a bigger threat than cable TV or bleary-eyed viewers. In response to Today’s move, ABC’s wide-awake Good Morning America has announced that it will also go on the air at 6 a.m. This past year, for the first time, the once preeminent Today has dropped to second in the Nielsens behind the flashier GMA. Moreover, in the rush to fill the insomniac hours, both NBC and CBS soon will begin post-midnight news shows. As the early-morning TV news war heats up (third-place CBS has no plans to move up its Morning News by bumping Captain Kangaroo), can Gumbel do at an earlier hour what has so far proved impossible: Beat GMA?
The first black host of a network morning news show, Gumbel professes calm. “If we were going to get blown away, it would have happened by now,” he says. “Everyone says, ‘Be patient,’ though I’m not a patient sort. But I’m happy with Today’s product and editorial content.”
Network biggies may not be. The seven-tenths of a Nielsen point difference between GMA and Today means as much as $7 million in annual revenue, and Today producer Steve Friedman recently warned that “format changes” might be made if his show doesn’t improve by October. The network has said that the Today team’s jobs are secure. NBC believes that fine-tuning Today—by modifying tone, set design and graphics—will attract a bigger audience. “Nothing as glitzy as GMA,” explains Gumbel, “but a look that will appeal to a younger, upscale crowd. [ABC now is dominant in major urban markets.] I am more prone to lighten things up than Brokaw was, and the changes we have been trying reflect my personality more.” Some observers contend Gumbel’s race has been an inconsequential factor, but his youth works against him on Today. “Gumbel is a really smart-assy young kid and [co-host] Jane Pauley is vacuous,” assesses the Washington media consulting firm McHugh and Hoffman. “They’re not strong enough to compete with GMA’s entertainment style or to play the hard-news game with CBS’ Morning News. Today will get squeezed from both sides.”
Gumbel is no stranger to working under pressure. “There’s nothing that can go on in front of the camera that could frighten me, having done NFL ’81,” says Bryant of the fast-paced sports report that first made him a national TV presence. In an industry lacking in successful black personalities, Gumbel’s stylish sangfroid has taken him to the top in just nine years. He admits he got his first TV job because of his race but believes his rise since then has been on merit. “The kinds of jobs I’ve gotten are not the kind people give out as token measures,” he says. Other problems, now behind him, were more troublesome. “Some suggested that because I didn’t come to the aid of various black causes I was a ‘Tom,’ that because I don’t look or speak a certain way I’m trying to be white. I’m simply trying to be Bryant Gumbel.”
He had a middle-class upbringing as the son of a Cook County probate judge and a Chicago city government bureaucrat. The second of four children (older brother Greg is a cable TV sportscaster in Connecticut), Gumbel was born in New Orleans and grew up in Hyde Park, an integrated enclave near Chicago’s South Side. “It was a melting pot,” Gumbel remembers. “It was the kind of community where one was very aware of education.” After attending Catholic schools in Chicago, Gumbel majored in history and played intramural sports at Maine’s tiny Bates College.
Following graduation, Gumbel worked briefly as a paper products salesman in New York, then as a writer and later editor for Black Sports magazine (now defunct). In 1972 he landed a weekend sportscasting position at L.A.’s KNBC. In 1980 he signed a three-year network contract for an estimated $1.5 million to handle the NFL beat, and three-day-a-week Today sport spots. He also hosted NBC’s laughable “trashsport” show, Games People Play. When he joined Today full-time, his salary jumped to a reported $2 million for three years.
Since moving to New York, Gumbel and his wife of eight years, June, 34, have lived in a spacious Manhattan duplex (now being expanded to three floors) in an East Side brownstone. Son Bradley, 3, attends private school four blocks away. They still return whenever possible to the five-bedroom Spanish-style home they built in L.A. four years ago. “We much prefer the Los Angeles life-style,” Gumbel says, “We like to spend time outside. I’ve never been real good at going to Broadway openings and discos.”
Gumbel’s Today schedule—a limo picks him up at 5 each morning, and he rarely leaves the office before 5 p.m.—doesn’t permit much recreation. “The feeling is satisfying, exasperating and wearing,” he says. “It takes a total commitment.” The ever-confident and totally committed Gumbel takes his own success in stride. “My timing has been good,” he asserts, “and the script damn near perfect.”