For CBS News Executives, New Morning Show Is a Chance to Refresh Expectations

By Alex Weprin Comment

Just off of 57th street and 10th avenue, behind some temporary walls (that you may have seen earlier this month), CBS is building out a new studio and newsroom. The studio, which CBS News chairman Jeff Fager called “Studio 57” during a tour of the space this afternoon, is currently an empty room, filled only with construction workers and equipment. The walls are exposed brick, which Fager says will remain a part of the design. There is also a newsroom next door, which will have a large window on 57th street and skylights, letting natural light into a room that was once kept quite dark.

Come January 9, it will be home to CBS News’ new morning program, to be anchored by Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Erica Hill.

Fager, along with CBS News president David Rhodes and VP of programming Chris Licht are betting that the new show will reverse the network’s morning channel fortunes.

“It matters to this news organization a lot,” Fager said. “[There is] a phrase that I hate hearing, and that is ‘distant third.'”

Fager has charged Licht with running the show. In addition to his duties as VP of programming for CBS News, Licht will serve as EP of the new program:

“Jeff has set the bar for being both an executive and a producer, not just an executive producer,” Licht said, before quipping: “I am really excited to get back in the control room, get the headphones back on, and get up at 4 AM.”

For now, the set design remains a mystery (you can see the room as it sits now to the left). When asked if he could describe the set, Licht said “No, but it won’t have a couch.”

Two CBS News employees who have seen mockups of the newsroom and set say it reminds them of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” though during the tour a CBS executive insisted that it would look distinct.

The format of the show is also something of a mystery–although that isn’t by design. CBS confirmed that the 7-8 AM hour would be led by Rose and Hill, with King leading the 8-9 PM hour. Hill and Rose would also appear during the second hour. The only details the executives and talent would divulge is that they haven’t worked out the details. The focus will be on hard news, but there will be pop culture as well. There won’t be cooking segments, but the show may still have on an acclaimed chef to talk about a new book. CBS News journalism will be utilized as much as possible, and executives would not rule out using clips from Rose’s PBS show if they are newsworthy.

“It will be hard news, it will be real news, but it won’t all be serious,” Fager said. “It will be a high-interest broadcast, with a great mix of stories for a mass audience.”

During the presser, the CBS News executives were asked whether the niche audiences that currently watch King’s OWN show (which will be ending as she takes the CBS job) and Rose’s PBS program (which he will continue doing) will tune in to the new morning program:

“I think that this is a chance for them to spread their wings and show the rest of the country how good they can be,” Fager said. “It isn’t based on data or research, it is based on our feeling for their talent.”

Rose likened the situation to that of Steve Jobs at Apple. Jobs famously shunned market research in favor of producing products that he enjoyed, and he thought others would enjoy too.

For CBS, the new morning show is a big bet. “The Early Show” has seen its format tweaked and cast changed, but it has remained mostly the same show over the years. The executives insist that the new program will have a completely different look and feel, and will be distinct from ABC’s “Good Morning America” and longtime leader NBC’s “Today,” both of which they praised.

Whether CBS’ big bet works will remain to be seen for quite some time, as CBS seems to be giving the new program a long leash, and time to find its voice.

During the tour, when this reporter told Fager that he was interested to see how the new show would look where it really matters–on TV–he replied “so am I.”