As ‘Early’ Overhauls, ‘Today’ Celebrates 15 Years at #1

By Gail Shister Comment

It’s good to be king. Ask Jim Bell.

The executive producer of NBC’s “Today” – No. 1 for 15 years, as of Dec. 11 – is not exactly quaking in his loafers about the all-new lineup for CBS’s third-place ‘Early Show.’

Erica Hill, Chris Wragge, Jeff Glor and Marysol Castro will replace the team of Harry Smith, Maggie Rodriguez and Dave Price beginning Jan. 3, the network announced Tuesday.

While hesitant to react to the changes himself, Big Jim confesses he was tickled by a tweet from The Daily Beast’s Kate Aurthur that read: “In theory, I like Maggie Rodriguez and am sad she’s gone from ‘CBS Early Show.’ In practice, I watch ‘Today’ like everybody else.”

The question, of course, is how CBS will pull itself out of the Nielsen basement it has occupied, seemingly, since the invention of the cathode ray tube.

“I don’t know if anything will make a difference, but they’re willing to try, and we have to take it seriously,” says Bell.

Comparing the move, as have some bloggers, to re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic is “an unfair and mean-spirited characterization that unfortunately seems to play well in places where people can post anonymous comments,” Bell says.

Steve Friedman, executive producer of MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan show, did two tours at CBS running the morning program and was e.p. of “Today.” Given the money at stake, he says CBS had no choice but to try, try, try again.

“I applaud them for saying, ‘OK, we’re going to start over.’ These are ensemble shows. There’s no such thing as ‘I do good and you don’t.’ The ensemble wasn’t working. To hold the new guy running the show [David Friedman, no relation] responsible for other anchor teams is crazy.”

Equally crazy, he says, is the notion that CBS is somehow cursed in the mornings.

“You’re cursed until you’re not. You fail until you succeed. Today’s cursed failure is

tomorrow’s hit. I would never give up on morning TV. There’s too much money to be made, and it’s one of the great places where network TV still dominates.”

That said, Friedman says of his former home: “Thank God I’m not there. It’s not fun when you’re in last place. I’ve been in first place and I’ve been in last place. First place is a lot more fun.”

During the week of November 15, for example, ‘Early Show’ averaged 2.93 million viewers, compared to 4.64 million for ABC’s ‘Good Morning America’ and 5.56 million for ‘Today.’

All three shows were down for the 2009-’10 season compared to ’08-’09, but ‘Early Show’ suffered the biggest loss – 220,000 total viewers.  ‘Today’ lost 90,000 and ‘GMA,’ 80,000.

Naturally, Bell sees the glass as half full.

“We dominated, and we saw the second-place morning show finish closer to the third-place show than to us. The 9 a.m. hour beat Regis and Kelly for the first time ever and Kathie Lee and Hoda are on fire at 10 a.m.”

‘Today’ has managed to stay on top for 15 years because “we’ve remembered who we are,” Bell says.

Will we ever see that kind of dominance again, in any day part?

“Perhaps it’ll happen someday when shows start using performance enhancing drugs,” Bell deadpans. “We’ll enter a new steroid era of television.”

It’s good to king.