Morning News Review - 'CBS This Morning'

Saturday, January 18, 2014
[NOTE: this is the third--and sadly last--of an originally anticipated five-part series critiquing morning news offerings from US broadcast and cable news providers that I started back in June 2012.  Like the others, I will provide my take on the composition, the hosts, the 'aesthetics', and any overt/covert 'messaging' that might be present and meant to attract your attention at the breakfast table.]

SHOWCBS This Morning
DATE/TIMES:  7 January 2014/0700-0730
LOCATION: CBS Broadcast Center, New York, NY
HOSTS: Charlie Rose (co-host), Norah O'Donnell (co-host), Gayle King (co-host)
CORRESPONDENTS: Dean Reynolds (Chicago, IL), Rebekka Schramm (affiliate/Atlanta, GA), Elaine Quijano (LaGuardia International Airport, NY), Megan Glaros (affiliate/Chicago, IL), John Blackstone (San Francisco, CA), Major Garrett (White House), Elizabeth Palmer (Amman, Jordan)

FLOW:  The show started promptly at 7AM with a quick three-toned graphic-assisted intro followed by strings/horns playing through the anchor's greetings and a zoom-in to the center of the studio.  Charlie Rose started off the top news items with mentioning the record Arctic blast going through the mid-sections (and approaching the eastern regions) of the country.  Norah O'Donnell brought up the BCS championship football game played the previous evening and also provided a "teaser" for a segment on the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas that would be aired later in the two-hour broadcast.

It was at this point that Rose introduced the show's "hook"--a short video collage of the major current events to attract the viewer's attention.  He does this by saying "Todays eye-opener--your world in 90 seconds" while a spinning CBS "eye" logo spins on a screen to the anchors' right.  During this one and one-half minute segment, we saw a man-on-the-street talking about the cold weather, the front page of Appleton, WI Post-Crescent with photo of totally bundled up Patrick (Jobin) Curoe, 500 passengers stuck on 3 Amtrak trains heading into Chicago because of blowing drifting snow and flight delays to provide background for the day's top story (Rose voices "an Arctic blast plunges nearly half the country into a deep freeze" about halfway through those images/videos).  This was followed up by Vice President Joe Biden offering US support for Iraq in the face of mounting terrorist attacks, clips from the Florida State-Auburn football game, a manhole explosion in midtown Manhattan, and surveillance video of a gas station employee nearly killed at pump.  Rose then says "all that" and we then see the new panda cub at Washington's National Zoo, a CNN correspondent doing an outdoor remote spot at 11AM saying "things are freezing on my body that I didn't know were possible to freeze" and then being interviewed by Anderson Cooper during his evening show  and saying "I don't know who you pissed off to get this assignment".  Rose then utters "and all that matters" as we see White House Press Secretary Jay Carney's new beard (he said it was his homage to CBS journalist Mark Knowler).  Rose finally says "on CBS This Morning" that is followed by video of Russian premier Vladimir Putin announcing approval of demonstrations in designated areas at the upcoming Sochi Olympic games with NBC's Late Night With Jimmy Fallon's host providing his own answer (while doing an impersonation of the Russian leader) which was "Poland!".  The montage ended with the announcement that the "eye-opener" was presented by Toyota (the logo was also featured on the introductory graphic).

The camera returns to the two seated hosts (they announced that their second hour host Gayle King was off) and after a small amount of interpersonal banter, Rose started in on the nation's brutally cold weather and O'Donnell voices over a graphic of wind chills over the eastern portion of the US.  She hands off to Dean Reynolds, the network's Chicago-based correspondent, who provides an update on conditions in the "Windy City" from the Navy Pier.  In his short segment, he mentioned the Amtrak story, provided man-on-the-street comments, showed video of steam coming off of Lake Michigan, highlighted the plight of the city's homeless population, brought up higher demands on the region's power grid, featured a postal worker making his rounds totally bundled up, and captured a few residents' desire to move to a warmer climate.  He finished his live portion with an update on the train travelers (they had been moved to busses to complete the last portion of their journey).

O'Donnell then shifted the focus south to locations less accustomed to freezing temperatures (a graphic showing hard freeze warning boxes for Atlanta, Mobile, Jackson, New Orleans and Houston) and Atlanta affiliate WGCL's Rebekka Schramm reported on the then-current 7 degree/-6 degree wind chill conditions in that city--the coldest in nearly two decades.  Schools were closed and 30 percent of the flights in and out of Hartsfield International Airport were delayed the previous day.  There was an end in sight where temperatures were predicted to reach the mid-40s by Wednesday and the 60s by the weekend.

Rose handled the segue to air travel (a graphic depicted 1827 delays across the country that Monday alone--the sixth consecutive day of weather-related problems), a taped segment by correspondent Elaine Quijano at New York's LaGuardia airport showed video and stills of the deicing of aircraft, comments by delayed/stranded passengers, and the fallout of Jet Blue limiting flights to four major northeast airports due to weather and new federally required crew rest standards.  One woman she spoke to was actually mulling giving up on her flight and just renting a car and driving back to Florida (she had upcoming medical appointments).  The segment concluded with news of American Airlines having jet fuel and fluids freezing due to the extreme cold at Chicago's O'Hare airport and those conditions severely reducing ground crews exposure to the elements.

O'Donnell next turned to new snowfall in Buffalo and areas of upstate New York (up to 6 feet of snow expected) and the network's Chicago affiliate WBBM's meteorologist Megan Glaros reviewed that update as well and other information related to the "polar vortex" with a series of graphics and maps showing the chilly temperatures extending down to central Florida.

The college football championship game was next on the list of items to cover.  With O'Donnell discussing the results, the front pages of USA Today, The Miami Herald, and The Tampa Bay Times--all with headlines/photos featuring that contest--were displayed on a screen next to the main anchor desk.  San Francisco-based correspondent John Blackstone talked through the video highlights of the game that also included a small mention of the legal problems facing the Florida State quarterback (and 2013 Heisman trophy winner) Jameis Winston concerning a sexual assault complaint where charges were never filed (yesterday was Winston's 20th birthday).

Rose then introduced a political segment that included the Senate's upcoming vote on extending unemployment benefits (one that was expected to fall short of the 60 needed to go to the full Senate).  CBS News' Chief White House Correspondent Major Garrett analyzed how the vote might to (factoring in how many minority Republicans would vote with the majority Democrats as well as how many senators would actually show up due to transportation issues into Washington, DC).  He reported that President Obama was expected to "hammer" the Senate Republicans for not extending them (a previous graphic showed only four Republicans publicly committed to support--at least five would be needed to attain the minimum required) while graphics indicating the impact of those benefits to segments of the population were displayed on screen (cost of the three-month extension being $6.5 billion, the GOP demanding offsets, and the White House reiterating their position of no offsets but having that body find funds from other sources).  To finish the segment, O'Donnell announced that Janet Yellen was starting her day as the new Federal Reserve Chair after yesterday's Senate vote  by a 56-26 margin (she is the first woman to hold the Central Bank in its 100-year history and will start her term on February 1).

On the international scene, Rose brought up recent terrorist attacks in and around Fallujah and Iraq's Anbar province (headlines from The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Time magazine and the Israeli daily Haaretz appear on a video display).  He then introduced foreign correspondent Elizabeth Palmer, reporting from Amman, Jordan and her reporting on that recent Iraqi violence.  She stated that Prime Minister Nouri al Malaki had discussions with Vice President Biden (he said that this was Iraq's problem but the US would be willing to help logistically) as well as asking residents in that region to oust the militants while B-roll video footage of military operations provided by the Iraqi Defense Ministry was shown on the screen.  She concluded by confirming that arms shipments and drone sales to Iraq are being expedited to help combat this outbreak.

O'Donnell next reported on a 10-year old girl who aborted her suicide mission in Afghanistan's Helmand province (her Taliban brother supposedly forced her to wear a bomb vest).  Rose followed with news of a New Year's Eve arson attack on the People's Republic of China's consulate in San Francisco (with surveillance video of the start of that fire playing on screen) and O'Donnell finished this segment with video footage of the aftermath of a weather-related manhole fire that happened in the vicinity of the Time-Life Building near Manhattan's Radio City Music Hall--just five blocks from the program's studios.

Rose introduced the "This Morning's Headlines" segment where papers from across the country were highlighted.  He and O'Donnell alternated stories that included USA Today's item on the backlash over government vehicle checkpoints for drunk drivers and contraband searches, The Salt Lake City Tribune's latest on the Supreme Court stopping gay marriages in Utah pending appellate review, The Chicago Tribune's mention of a key provision of that city's gun ordinance being ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge, The Los Angeles Times' report of the retirement of current county sheriff Lee Baca, The New York Times' update on a fatal Manhattan high-rise fire that was attributed to faulty electrical wiring (with video of the blaze and responders playing in the background) and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's piece on an air traveler who was sentenced to eight months in prison for slapping a crying baby on a flight and using racial slurs while doing so (the traveler also lost his job because of this incident).

After viewing video footage of high waves striking parts of Great Britain, a break for local weather at 7:19 (local meteorologist Rich Wirdzek provided a taped update) as well as scrolling conditions for a variety of US cities was shown (the national weather report is sponsored by USAA Insurance and their commercial played alongside the ).  After both anchors gave a "tease" about a pending interview with former Minnesota Vikings' punter Chris Kluwe (in the news for claims he made about his former team due to his positions on same-sex marriage), Rose delivered the tag line "the news is back in the morning on CBS This Morning" while video of current Chicago driving conditions was shown.  As the national segment ended, a announcement identifying Walmart as the sponsor for that preceding portion was shown (a commercial for that chain's optical services followed).  After several other network-provided and local ads (including one for Osphena, a woman's sexual lubrication drug, that seemed out of place for a morning show), the switch over to the local affiliate was formally announced at 7:25.  Local news headlines started shortly after (all items were related to the cold weather afflicting the region) as well as another abbreviated weather update before returning to the network programming at 7:30 (a clip of the CBS Late Show's host David Letterman critiquing returning members of Congress got a chuckle out of Rose and O'Donnell before they started their second half-hour).

BACKGROUND: Out of the three programs I have reviewed in this series, CBS This Morning is probably the least familiar to me and that would be directly related to that network's inability to find an audience for its particular brand of morning television.  While this latest reincarnation started in January 2012, the "Tiffany Network" has been tinkering around with a competitor to NBC's Today show for almost the past 60 years.  From Walter Cronkite to Jimmy Dean to Charles Kuralt to Harry Smith, everything that was thrown at the programming wall did not appear to stick. 

Just a sampling of the many people CBS used over the years in their morning news programming.

Some have blamed this string of failure on the network's insistence on doing a "substantive" program--one focused on news and analysis and not fixating on "lifestyle" segments (home, entertainment, etc.) that its competitors initially embraced and evolved into its current form over the decades.  Another reason was CBS's approval for its affiliates to shorten the New York-originated feed (or, in some markets, ignore it entirely).  When I lived in the Baltimore, Maryland area, CBS affiliate WJZ aired its own morning program (the long-running Morning Edition) during those hours and Dayton's WHIO only ran the second hour (8-9AM) until the January 2013 format change.  It still does occasionally preempt the show due to high-visibility local events or weather (while the local early news normally transfers at 7AM to a digital channel used for continuous weather and news "reruns", it lacks a conventional "sister" channel that the other two Dayton broadcast outlets currently employ for those rare occasions).  In fact, I was originally going to do this review last month but CBS This Morning was "commandeered" in both the Dayton and Cincinnati markets because of inclement weather.

The cast of CBS's long-running children's show Captain Kangaroo.

The programming focus (which I like but I'm not in the majority opinion) as well as the affiliate leniency have led to the CBS morning offerings coming in third in the three-network race for viewers of that particular format.  While NBC and ABC continue to challenge the other for the coveted "most watched" or "number one" ranking, CBS is still trying to find success with their most recent incarnation of a morning show.  Because of those low ratings, I did not get to see their shows while overseas like I did for Today and Good Morning America via the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service and Armed Forces Network.  Perhaps the most familiar CBS morning show I can remember watching was the comedic antics of Dancing Bear, Bunny Rabbit and Mister Moose on the long-running children's program Captain Kangaroo (it had a nearly 30-year run alongside some of those earlier news offerings).

CRITIQUE:  While I am leading off with some pretty negative information, please don't let it influence my comments below because I see a LOT to like in this program.

The focus:  As I mentioned above, the overall focus for most of the versions of morning programming offered by CBS has been in their traditional standard of news excellence and programming quality (it didn't get the nickname "Tiffany Network" for nothing).  Because of this goal, the show does not deviate like its competitors do into the "3 F's" (food, fashion, and family) bits until the second hour (when Gayle King is trotted out to chaperone those responsibilities).  As with the others, I am limiting my observations to the first 30 minutes but I may add items from later in the show for context.  Like its ABC rival, it is a 120-minute show and is followed in the Dayton market by the nationally syndicated Live! with Kelly and Michael talk show. 

To help the viewer anticipate when an advertised story will air, the program's website publishes a schedule that is broken down to specific minutes (the January 7th chronological order is provided below).

The hosts:  This is an area of concern for me because I do not see a lot of honest interaction between the three co-hosts.  As far as the first hour is concerned, both Rose and O'Donnell possess the gravitas and pedigree with the news to punctuate the network's desire to maintain its news/current events focus.  His long-time interview program on PBS and her previous political experience with NBC News help that along (both had/have "side gigs" with the network--he as a co-host of Person to Person, the stifled revival of the show Edward R. Murrow hosted for CBS from 1953 to 1959, and she as a frequent panelist/substitute host on Face the Nation).  O'Donnell replaced Erica Hill, a holdover from The Early Show, in September 2012 (Hill is now one of the cohosts of NBC's Weekend Today show).  There is limited chit-chat between the two at the top and bottom of that first block and the one for the next half hour.  The strange part is that the three of them are present for the start of the program (each is normally given an item in the lead-up to the "eye opener") but when the viewer returns after that segment, King is nowhere to be found.  To provide some parity, she does get the chance to kick off the second hour's "eye opener" (with highlights from the first hour's programming) and then joins Rose and O'Donnell at the main table to finish the broadcast (with some pretty cringe-worthy exchanges).  Like the other two, King has her own interests away from the show (she is also an editor-at-large for O, the Oprah Magazine).

In the mold of both Today and GMA, the show rarely deviates from a male-female pairing (for example, Rose lost his voice a few weeks back and current and former weekend hosts Anthony Mason and Jeff Glor filled his spot in front of the camera until his return).  When O'Donnell is off, King sometimes sits in for the entire two-hour stint but she seems to have a problem reading copy off of the teleprompter and that, to me, is a major distraction that I shouldn't have to endure too often on a news-oriented show (this is an odd trait for someone who has been a news anchor and a media practitioner for many years).  As a football fan and a viewer of the Philadelphia television news market in my early years, Rose's voice--with its almost John Facenda-esque baritone quality, is a major asset in keeping my attention when it might be wandering due to breakfast-related activities (or a lack of sleep from the previous night).

Due to their decision to stay focused on the news, there is no weather person on the set and the show relies upon affiliate meteorologists to provide their input if such stories are considered newsworthy for that day (like Glaros did for the recent polar vortex on that January 7th show).  Although none appeared during my "peek-in", the program regularly brings in experts to sit at the table with the hosts (or via video link if not in the local area) and provide their insight on breaking or important stories.  One of my favorite regular contributors, national security correspondent John Miller, recently left the network to take a deputy commissioner position within the New York Police Department.  With the constant NSA document disclosures and the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, he spent a lot of time on camera both on that show as well as their network's nightly newscast.  The heavy use of CBS News and affiliate correspondents (there were seven used during that 19-minute stretch) allows for continuity with other journalism-related activities at that network and the "borrowing" of their news division's long-time stellar credibility (which has taken a major hit recently due to the inaccurate reporting about the 2012 Benghazi consulate siege by 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan).

The aesthetics: This area is probably the one that has captured most of my attention because what I'm seeing on my screen is genuine "eye candy" for the discerning viewer (and high-definition viewing is a definite asset).

The circular island and "CBS eye" table at the center of the set.
The setThe Early Show was done out of the General Motors Building from 1999 to 2012 but the decision was made to move CBS This Morning into the newly remodeled 4,000 square foot Studio 57 at the CBS Broadcast Center, the network's East Coast production hub.  Instead of the carpet and drywall and windows seen on Today and GMA, the new set features exposed brick walls and hardwood flooring with no portals to a studio audience or crowds out on the sidewalk.  In the middle of the large open area sits a raised circular island with a round clear table (with a centered CBS "eye logo) for seating of the three co-hosts and/or in-studio guests.  Prior to joining the conversation, those visitors are sequestered inside a glassed-in "green room" that is located to one corner of the set but is sometimes visible when close-ups of the co-hosts are required (this is the only location where couches--the traditional morning show furniture item--are allowed).

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and his wife Ann talk with Gayle King in the glass-enclosed "green room".

The show's prolific use of flat panel high-definition monitors is an innovation that pays immediate dividends to the viewer.  A "magic wall" and large mobile screens are used as backdrops for the co-hosts in a variety of situations (smaller ones are positioned close to the central island virtually places remote guests into a more intimate setting).  Monitor banks around the studio allows the show's producers to change the mood (along with highlight lighting) on the fly or to display a uniform "branding" when a specific topic or guest appears on-screen.  A variety of mobile and fixed cameras give the viewer a look that, at least at the time the show premiered, was not seen on other morning news offerings.

Network and media memorabilia are mixed in with modern flat panel high-definition displays along the outer walls of Studio 57.

In an homage to CBS News' rich history in both radio and television, a variety of network and media memorabilia are prominently displayed around the brick outer walls of the studio.  One of the most visible items is a wall map that was used on the set of The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, probably their high-water mark in terms of viewership and journalistic integrity ("Uncle Walter" was once known as "the most trusted man in America" during his nearly 19-year stint as anchor of their nightly newscast).

A world map that once adorned the set of The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite is featured prominently along the exposed brick walls of Studio 57.

Although they are working inside a 4,000 square foot room, the domestic décor, the adjustable lighting and the innovative use of technology help to provide a overall sense of intimacy and ease with their guests and this environment is a plus for the viewership at home. 

The graphics:  Unlike the other two shows, the more recently launched CBS This Morning has always been broadcast in high-definition and, as I said above, its visuals are accentuated by that technology upgrade.  WHIO-TV was the first channel in the Dayton area to begin HD broadcasting back in 2001.  Normally, this affiliate blocks only a small portion of the lower part of the screen in order to provide local information (time, weather for specific regional locations) but that area was expanded due to the weather-related school, business and community closures on that January 7 broadcast.

One of the newspaper "mashups" used by the program to properly cite their sources.

During the program, I do like the incorporation of newspaper data in the telling of their television stories.  The front page of the Appleton, Wisconsin Post-Crescent and the graphic "mashups" of the mastheads, headlines and photographs of cited publications are a welcome "shoutout" to an industry that is suffering at the hands of television and online entities that are simply appropriating their coverage to fill their air time and bandwidth.

The atmosphere:  As I said in the area above on the hosts, this show seems to lack chemistry between the on-screen personalities due, in part, to the relegation of King to second-hour responsibilities only.  Having just three people on the set establishes a "triangle" arrangement that can pose problems with interpersonal communications.  With four and five cohosts/anchors respectively, both Today and GMA avoid those potential "ganging up/isolation" scenarios (for example, Rose is already at a disadvantage with his two female co-hosts based upon gender).  You can see a sample of this awkwardness in a "Sounds of the Toyota Green Room" clip when Robin Williams was a guest:

As the newest member of the team, O'Donnell seems to have established herself as the "buffer" between the staid Rose and the gregarious King and can easily shift her demeanor between the "hard" and "soft" portions of the broadcast.  This, along with her extensive political pedigree, may have been the rationale behind the replacement of Hill midway through the show's first year.

The messaging:  Along with the on-set linkage to CBS News' long and distinguished journalistic legacy, the show continuously plugs its fellow information-heavy programs (The CBS Evening News, 60 Minutes, 48 Hours) as well as other prime-time and sporting offerings.  As is almost all media outlets besides Fox News, CBS is identified as being part of the "mainstream media" and of having a "liberal" bias when reporting on current events--specifically when covering issues of a political nature.  This label has been firmly affixed ever since Cronkite made his famous commentary about the Vietnam War.  That evaluation was so damaging that it directly influenced then-President Johnson to give up on his reelection bid and fueled the next administration to wage an open war on the press (with "nattering nabobs of negativism" becoming part of the nation's political lexicon) that continues to the present day.

60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan apologizes for her earlier journalistic "malpractice" at the end of its November 10 program.

The previously cited (and error-filled) 60 Minutes report on Benghazi has also earned the network the ire of left-leaning and progressive organizations for being "shills" for the right-wing elements in the media and entertainment worlds (Logan's primary source for that dubious segment was also hawking a book that was published by Simon and Schuster, a CBS News subsidiary company).  That outrage grew so severe that she had to make an on-air apology for her mistakes and that egregious breach of journalistic standards earned the network's chief foreign affairs correspondent an open-ended "leave of absence".  Another "fluff" piece this past December by Miller about the National Security Agency earned similar scorn from those same scrutinizing sources.

During my "peek-in", politics and foreign affairs played second fiddle to the severe weather stories and, to me, it appeared that they played it right down the middle.  They stuck with the facts as known (that legislation did pass a crucial Senate vote and the president's speech was altered to target all of the Congress to pass the extension which, to no one's surprise, was sabotaged by his political opponents in that body).  Since I try to stick with factual information in order to ground my personal and professional opinions, I do not see any persistent bias by CBS or any of the other outlets called out when news items are not presented with Heritage Foundation-approved "talking points".
OVERALL:  As I said in my previous reviews, familiarity often breeds contempt and "old dogs" like myself do enjoy regimented routines for their lives; however, I must report that my choice in morning news has changed.  Already a fan of their nightly news offering, I am seeing the same level of professionalism in this newest edition of a long string of unsuccessful attempts at securing viewers at that early time of day.  It is a pleasure to the senses as well as my overall sensibilities at my advancing age, and even the perceptible prickliness between the on-air personalities cannot get me to turn back to its two more highly rated broadcast competitors.  Unfortunately, I am several years outside the highly lucrative "Adults 18-49" advertising demographic so my opinions will not carry the same weight as my 20-something kids who are still in deep sleep when this show airs.  With a three-million viewer average (about 50 to 60 percent of what ABC and NBC gets, respectively), I am hoping that those numbers will keep this show going for the foreseeable future.

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