THEY’RE REARRANGING THE DECK chairs on television’s ever-listing Titanic again. In other words, CBS This Morning is experimenting with a new format. Don’t bother to alert the media. Since instituting a morning show in 1963, the network has changed the title, hosts or focus countless times without ever coming close to the perennial Nielsen leaders: NBC’s Today and ABC’s Good Morning America. The latest CBS incarnation retains Harry Smith and Paula Zahn (who, after five years together, remain the show’s most enduring elements), but now they are situated on an expansive, colorful new stage in front of a studio audience. Paula and Harry scuttle up and down the aisles with microphones to work the often-lifeless crowd like a couple of sleep-deprived Ricki Lake wannabes. And each day the second hour of the show is devoted to a single celebrity or topic. Those are 60 long minutes when the segment isn’t working—as with an appallingly awkward appearance by Bill Cosby that even included a botched cooking segment. As Cosby quipped before making his escape: “I want to thank you for letting me slow down an hour.”
The competition is not exactly quaking. “It’s not something we’re terribly concerned about right now,” yawns Today’s executive producer Jeffrey Zucker. Still, the new This Morning does have its moments. Special guests like Dan Rather and Billie Jean King pop by unannounced à la Letter-man. And on Fridays weatherman Mark McEwen wings footballs out into the audience as part of his forecast. (Hey, goofy beats dull any day.) As CBS sees it, the nearly $1 million revamp is a step in the right direction. Says Jim Murphy, the producer who designed the format: “It’s a different sort of morning news program than what has been available for the past 30 years.” Maybe, but there is one part of the show that hasn’t changed much, and perhaps never will: the ratings. The made-over This Morning averaged a preliminary rating of 2.2 in its first week, up from its usual 2.0. How weak are those numbers? Put it this way: CBS was doing just as well eight years ago—with the slap-happy duo of Rolland Smith and Mariette Hartley.