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Tuned In: Gumbel ready to rise and shine for 'new challenge'

Tuesday, July 27, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, CALIF. -- Bryant Gumbel blessed me.

No, not like the Pope.

I sneezed while chasing him along with a gaggle of reporters after a press conference for CBS's "The Early Show" (7 to 9 a.m. weekdays beginning Nov. 1). During press tour it's common for members of the press to trail the stars out of the Ritz-Carlton ballroom where interview sessions are held. I joined the pack because Gumbel didn't get a chance to answer a question about why he would want to do another morning show.

When he ended his time with NBC's "Today" show, Gumbel said he was ready to move on to something different. Isn't "The Early Show" more of the same? After the failure of his prime-time newsmagazine "Public Eye," did he feel there was nowhere else for him to go at CBS?

Nope, that's not the case. Gumbel said "The Early Show" is a new challenge because it involves a different set of people at a different network doing a different show. He said he wasn't sure he wanted to do it when first approached but later changed his mind.

"After the months went along and we continued to talk, I became convinced it was a priority for CBS News," Gumbel said. "It revealed itself to be a tremendous opportunity to build something from scratch, to reverse an unfortunate legacy of the mornings on CBS and get back in the game and compete and do something I truly enjoy. Live television is something I thoroughly enjoy."

Gumbel said he's gotten over "Public Eye," a failure he said he was partially responsible for because he allowed his vision of the show to be compromised. "I think I wasn't as hard-headed as I should have been," Gumbel said. "After a while, you compromise to satisfy others, to try to be collegial, and you get away from what you first wanted to do."

For viewers at home, Gumbel's "Early Show" may not seem so different from the "Today" show when he was its leader. Like "Today," "The Early Show" will have an indoor/outdoor studio, "the price of admission to get in the morning game," according to "Early Show" senior executive producer Steve Friedman. He masterminded the ground-level studio a few years ago when he worked on "Today" and said the dual studio gives viewers a sense of place and improves on the sterile studio environment seen on CBS's current morning show. "You can never have too much of a good thing," Friedman said. "The idea is to take what is good, eliminate what is bad and build your own thing. We are not here to reinvent the morning television wheel ... we're going to add some new spokes."

A co-anchor has not yet been named and CBS News president Andrew Heyward has dubbed the ongoing search "Operation Glass Slipper." Gumbel said he's received solicitations from people ages "17 to 84" who want to co-anchor with him.

Two "Early Show" contributors were announced yesterday: former MTV VJ Martha Quinn and author Lisa Birnbach will tag team on the weekly segment, "Yikes, I've Grown Up," about women coming of age and taking on the roles of wife, mother and daughter.

A KDKA spokesman said no decision has been made about whether the CBS affiliate will drop its 7 a.m. hour of local news to run the full two hours of "The Early Show," but come on. It's a CBS-owned and operated station; it only makes synergistic sense that they will.

CBS's Heyward said no decision has been made about which owned and operated stations will carry the program in its entirety, but other network officials said it will be on all but a few stations with commitments to syndicated programming.

Faithful or foolish? We all know the intense competitive pressure facing new TV shows. They're expected to deliver viewers or they're gone. Yet two shows that will air opposite each other at 9 p.m. Fridays get off to inconclusive starts in their pilot episodes, leaving viewers baffled as to where the story is headed in the case of either show.

The creators of each show claim to be unconcerned that those who show up for the premiere may not return for more the second week.

Chris Carter's "Harsh Realm" on Fox posits a virtual reality world where a human functions among human-looking, but imaginary characters. The whole show is really taking place in the lead characters' head, though, so he's not really in danger. So why should viewers care?

Carter said the impact of the events in the virtual world on the real world will be explained in the second and third episodes. "We put it in the pilot, but it was too much information," he said.

"[It's] a giant concept when you realize how this virtual imaginary world will affect reality."

Carter said he hopes "Harsh Realm" will be compelling enough to keep viewers interested.

"I'm not interested in doing a traditional franchise show," he said. "Hopefully the unique quality will be enough to bring people back."

Likewise, CBS's "Now and Again" -- a modern, more human take on "The Six Million Dollar Man" story from "Moonlighting" creator Glenn Gordon Caron -- ends with a "to be continued." At the end of the pilot an important subplot about a terrorist doesn't yet connect to the main story of an insurance salesman (guest star John Goodman) who dies and gets rebuilt by the government as a younger man (series star Eric Close).

"Hopefully it will intrigue the hell out of people," Caron said. "It will compel them to come back. The neatness and the predictability of television is one of the things that makes it difficult to get passionate about some of it."

Caron said viewers have gotten so used to how TV stories are told, they know what to expect too often. He wants to defy expectations.

"If you come along and say, let me tell you a story in a slightly different way, instead of being passive about it, you might get people more active in terms of, "Oh, I've got to see where that goes,'" Caron said. "And as a storyteller, selfishly, that's something I want."

Caron and Carter are likely to rethink that stance if both shows tank.

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