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Another reason to cherish “CBS SM”: when Kuralt retired, he was succeeded by a man a year older than he. Osgood was New York City born, bred, schooled (Fordham) and employed (as the mellifluous morning man on WCBS news radio). Yet his bow tie, wry good nature and weakness for writing up a story in helium-light verse marked him as a Kuralt cousin. He joined the CBS network in 1971 and filled a daily 90-sec. slot called “The Osgood File” (it’s run on 350 stations) as well as serving, for five years, as a host of the CBS morning show, which for 50 years now has been broadcast live from the Death Valley of Nielsen ratings. “CBS SM” was the ideal perch for him, his soothing FM voice replacing Kuralt’s cracker-barrel baritone. The transition was seamless. Under current executive producer Rand Morrison, “CBS SM” has picked up the pace but never swerved off-course.
Here’s how a typical “CBS SM” runs.
A trumpet fanfare of German composer Gottfried Reiche’s “Abblasen” (rendered for the first 25 years by Doc Severinsen, and now by Winton Marsalis) introduces Osgood standing at a 7-ft. sculpture on which are displayed the morning’s chapter headings the table of contents for this magazine show. Osgood runs though the half-dozen main stories, then reads the news “for today, February 15th, twenty-oh-four.” The show revels in mild eccentricities; some of the most prominent are Osgood’s bow tie, his occasional flights of doggerel and his persistent disdain for the locution “two thousand four.”
Then comes the Cover Story. It might reflect an international preoccupation (the Iraq conflict) but may also be a bit of soft news (the Ford Motor Company’s centenary and the challenges it faces today). For the first few years of “CBS SM,” the reporter of these pieces was usually Richard Threlkeld; now the segment is doled out to top or rising CBS staffers, who get a few extra minutes to find the idea behind the headline.
“CBS SM” takes the long view. It prefers light to heat, and doesn’t fret if the worthy subject is not in EW or on “ET.” In its cosmology, novelists and sculptors, opera divas and pop singers past puberty are stars worth traveling to, and doing features on, in the fat middle of the show. (“CBS SM” must account for 100% of network coverage of ballet.) Crucially, it believes that what happened 50 or 100 or, in the show’s case, 25 years ago is as important, and may touch us as deeply, as the news of the past week.
So the producers scramble to find an item for the weekly Almanac; they highlight an event that occurred today, many years ago, whether the founding of the Boy Scouts of America, or the opening of the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, or the invention of chewing gum. Often the deja-view has ominous glints. To compare the U.S. post-war adventure in Iraq with our occupation of Japan, the producers aired part of a 1946 documentary, sternly narrated by Arthur Kennedy: “Here’s where we clinch our victory or muff it.” That sounded like a caveat on April 13 of last year. Now it carries the echo of Cassandra.
In its Sunday Passage slot, “CBS SM” elegizes a notable death of the preceding seven days. Celebrities are easy, but on a slow week the researchers have to dig, and they often find gold. Last Sunday the show paid tribute to ad man James J. Jordan, Jr., the Shakespeare of sloganeers. If you’ve ever tried to purge from your memory such insistent phrases as “Ring around the collar,” “Schaefer is the one beer to have when you're having more than one,” “How do you handle a hungry man?”, “Delta is ready when you are,” “Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch” and “Quaker Oatmeal it’s the right thing to do” ... well, now you know who’s to blame.
A highlight of each “CBS SM” year-end show (along with a show-and-tell of endangered species saved) is its annual Obit review, which last December ran for nearly 20 mins. The segments were sensitively presented and expertly edited, the narration flowing with grace and pertinence from one subject to the next, the clips and photos evoking in a few seconds lives whose brilliance or notoriety helped change ours. My wife says she expects to cry at least once during each “CBS SM.” This farewell montage had us both moist with sorrow and appreciation.
If Osgood is Kuralt as host, Bill Geist, who usually gets the show’s last long slot, is the vagabond Kuralt, with a shorter fuse. A former columnist for the Times, Geist suggests a mix of Kuralt, Joe Mitchell and the “Daily Show” traveling circus. A copy of the Jack Barth-Ken Smith classic “Roadside America” in his back pocket, he visits the Museum of Towing, enters a BGA (Bad Golfers Association) tournament, investigates the Mothman legend in West Virginia, crashes the Exotic World Burlesque Museum & Striptease Hall of Fame, attends the Fruitcake demolition derby (that piece has to be retired) or just walks home the night of last August’s blackout. Stoic bafflement a deadpan stare into the camera is Geist’s usual game. But, when pressed, he can celebrate. For a wonderful “CBS SM” show dedicated to New York City, Geist reported on Pale Male, the red tailed hawk who has lived for the past decade on a window ledge in a Central Park apartment house. Geist relaxed and let the story soar with its subject.
I liked his story on the sport of Extreme Ironing, described by its inventor, Phil “Steam” Shaw of Leicester, England, as “the latest outdoor activity that combines the thrill of an extreme sport with the satisfaction of a well-pressed shirt.” At the Extreme Ironing World Championships in Munich two years ago, athletes competed in five events: forestry, rock-wall, aquatics, vehicular and freestyle. With the tilted gaze of a visionary, Steam has eyes on the 2008 Olympics: “If they can have synchronized swimming, why can’t they have Extreme Ironing?” His friend, Matthew “Starch” Patrick, remains skeptical: “I wouldn’t want to see people taking performance-enhancing drugs so they could somehow iron better.” If the Extreme Ironers never gets to compete in Beijing, they certainly medaled in Geist’s preferred sport: extreme irony.
For those who find the spectacle of Bill Geist at a seniors stripper convention too sensational, the show closes with a cool-down: the Nature Endpiece, a minute of wildlife footage whooping cranes or wild rabbits or the Yukon moose with no music or narration, just the rush of wind or water and the occasional bird call or bleat. (If the National Geographic Channel had videos, these would be in the top 40.) Having mellowed us out, Osgood signs off with a subtle plug for his daily commentary: “I’ll see you on the radio.”
IN THEIR OWN WRITE
Spinning features on friendship and soldiering on, cultivating your garden and dying well, the show is at heart a cheerleader for American diversity. “A perfect ‘Sunday Morning’ story” is one with challenges surmounted, often at an advanced age, as correspondent Rita Braver dewily nudges them onward. I’m a sucker for these heartwarmers, but the crank in me sometimes rebels. The syrup’s already on my pancakes, thanks.