Television: Battle Of the Morning People

The Early Show pulls up to the morning-news breakfast buffet

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You would think Jane Clayson was just another ambitious young woman who landed a job in New York City--scrambling to find an apartment, deposited (temporarily) by her employer in what is, truth be told, a pretty crappy office. Inoffensive museum posters hang on the wall; the painted metal and laminate desk is bare of much but a Poland Spring bottle and a phone; a generic screen saver plays across the monitor of a generic PC. In the middle of an interview, her phone rings. And rings. She rises apologetically and answers it herself. "It's what I'm used to doing," she says.

Clayson, 32, has a different set of demands to get used to now though. Tapped this summer as Bryant Gumbel's co-host on CBS's The Early Show, which makes its debut next Monday, the former ABC News reporter will be a key element--perhaps the key element--in her network's attempt to grab at the groaning breakfast buffet of advertising dollars that is morning television.

In a time-starved society that is waking earlier and has a slew of evening-entertainment options, the morning news shows have effectively become the new nightly news. The flagship evening broadcasts have been in a decades-long ratings tailspin, while the morning shows' mix of quick news and consumer tips has clicked with a populace that has shifted its focus from international to national news and from national to my news--my health, my kids, my money. And as viewers have embraced the shows, so have the newsmakers who want to reach them. If you have a book to sell, a campaign to run or a vast right-wing conspiracy to denounce--as Matt Lauer learned in his 1998 interview with Hillary Clinton on NBC's Today--you do the morning shows. Says Lauer: "It used to be that if there was a major statement, a politician would come out at 4 p.m., because it'd be on all the nightly newscasts at 6:30. Now they're going to give it to one of the morning shows first."

CBS's soon to be former morning show, CBS This Morning, perennially finished third in the ratings, largely because the network committed scant resources to it. Now it has tapped the high-priced Gumbel and built a sleek, $30 million Fifth Avenue studio because it can't afford not to. Situated in the only time slot in which network audiences are actually growing, the morning programs earn as much as half a billion dollars a year, led by Today, which just celebrated 200 weeks atop the ratings. (The shows are also valuable for shilling nightly newsmagazines, cable sister shows and other network siblings, as anyone who has seen cast members of Friends, Becker or NYPD Blue just happen to drop by around 8 a.m. can attest.)

Early and ABC's Good Morning America--itself relaunched in a snazzy Times Square studio in September--are trying to eat Today's rich breakfast by offering pretty much the same thing: a newsy first hour, a lighter second; glass-walled, tourist-courting studios; platonic marriages of male and female anchors (the assumption that Gumbel's partner would be female was so absolute that CBS dubbed the search Operation Glass Slipper). The producers describe their differences with vague intangibles, complete with promises to be "the show for the next millennium."

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