When CBS unveiled CBS This Morning in 2012–the network’s newest entry in the morning TV wars–the mantra was simple: we’re going to do something entirely different. There would be no forced banter, no cooking segments, no chit chat with viewers on an outdoor plaza. CBS would play to its strength: news.
“We made a promise…and we’ve delivered on it,” said the show’s executive producer, Chris Licht this week. “You’re only as good as your word…and we’ve stayed good to our word.”
Licht’s arrival at CBS from MSNBC, where he ran Morning Joe, hinted at what CBS This Morning would become: hard news and smart conversation featuring a group of regulars. The announcement that Charlie Rose would be one of the show’s co-hosts, alongside Gayle King–and, six months later, the decision to add CBS News chief White House correspondent Norah O’Donnell–added to the sense CBS was making a clean break from The Early Show.
“People believed in what we were doing, starting with Charlie Rose,” Licht told TVNewser this week.
Others were skeptical. As an Associated Press story reported at the time, “the new anchor team was met with widespread skepticism throughout the industry: How does hiring a former syndicated talk-show host and noted PBS interviewer square with the desire to run a hard news broadcast?”
The new leadership team at CBS News wanted to provide that hard news alternative in the morning. Months earlier, David Rhodes, the newly-arrived president of the news division sent a blistering memo to The Early Show, noting the show had failed to capitalize on strong reporting by the network. “CBS News had a great weekend,” Rhodes wrote. “And a bad Monday morning.”
Looking back over the 1,000 mornings CTM has had, Licht (left, with his CTM hosts during a broadcast from atop One World Trade Center) remembers one morning not long after the show’s debut. It was the morning after the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo. “I walked in…everything was in place, there was no chaos,” he said. “We were the only ones that had someone live on the scene off the top.”
CBS This Morning had become a unit that excelled at big, breaking news. There would be no more memos. “We started to see that when big events happened, we covered them as well or better than the other guys, and the audience responded. That was gratifying.”
Licht says he watches the other guys, but declined an invitation to evaluate the product of Today and Good Morning America. CTM remains in third place, but the trend lines are encouraging. In September, CTM ended the 2014-2015 season as the only network morning news broadcast to post year-to-year gains in viewers (+15 percent). CTM gave CBS its biggest morning show audience for the full season since electronic records started being kept. The show is now in the closest competitive position with NBC’s Today since the 1993-1994 season.
“Is it soul-crushing to be number three? Yes,” said Licht. “But we believe in the product and we believe when people sample us, they like us. That’s all you can do…I really do hope we get to number two, and I really believe if we stick with this game plan, we will.”