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CBS This Morning, launched as a sober alternative to rivals at ABC and NBC, has powered CBS News to its closest competitive position in the morning in two decades. As the show — anchored by Gayle King, Charlie Rose and Norah O’Donnell — prepares to mark five years on the air Jan. 9, executives are banking on another milestone.
“I expect us to be in second place,” executive producer Ryan Kadro tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We continue to add viewers and attract people to the brand. A lot of it is grass roots and word of mouth, and that type of growth is sustainable. The other guys are more legacy brands. People have sampled them. They’ve made their decisions. And they continue to lose audience share.”
CBS This Morning has added 1 million viewers in the last five years. In 2012, the show was nearly 3 million viewers behind NBC’s Today; now the difference is fewer than 1 million. And it recently closed out its best fourth quarter in nearly 30 years, averaging 3.7 million viewers, up 6 percent, and jumping 10 percent among women 25-54. At the same time, ABC’s Good Morning America was down 6 percent among total viewers and women, while Today, the top-rated morning show, was down 5 percent in the female demo.
Stability seems to be paying off for CBS (and NBC). GMA is struggling to stanch declines that began more than a year ago and this season added Michael Strahan in a full-time position while also incorporating a studio audience during the last half hour of the show. Today, meanwhile, has finalized new deals with Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie that will keep them at the flagship iteration of the show for the foreseeable future. The 9 a.m. hour, a question mark since Billy Bush was ousted last October, is still a work in progress. There is speculation that NBC News executives could give the hour to Megyn Kelly, though many inside NBC News expect Kelly to have a daytime hour, perhaps at 1 p.m.
CBS This Morning‘s hosts have also been the topic of speculation. With Scott Pelley’s future at the CBS Evening News in question, O’Donnell has been floated as the heir to the evening news chair. Executives at CBS News deny that there is any move afoot to break up their successful morning show team. (King recently signed a new $16.5 million, three-year deal to stay at CTM; executives are likely to begin renegotiations with Rose shortly; O’Donnell’s deal comes up later this year.)
“We’re not making any changes to a really successful team in the morning,” says CBS News president David Rhodes. “People have different motivations for promoting one narrative or another. But we have a successful show. And we’re going to do everything we can to keep it successful.”
Adds Kadro: “You don’t make a talent change unless you want to make talent changes. And we don’t want to make a talent change.”
Indeed, while the evening news broadcasts are important branding propositions, the morning shows — with at least two hours of real estate and substantially more ad revenue potential — underwrite much of their news divisions’ operations. For CBS News, the morning show is also an important element of the CBS News brand at a time when the news industry as a whole has hit a nadir in the estimation of the public. Polarization in Washington and among viewers, as well as the scourge of blatantly false stories spread on social media, and misinformation spread by cable news talking heads (and some elected officials) have only added to the problem.
But all of this, says Kadro, has “really placed an emphasis for us on good old-fashioned reporting, sourcing, fact-checking and storytelling. We’ve been doing that for five years now. It’s not something that you just pivot to; it’s a cultural thing.”
The stunning results of the election intensified the hand-ringing in media circles.
“One thing I reject that sometimes comes from the left is that the media isn’t or didn’t do enough fact-checking,” says Rhodes. “I don’t think the election was some sort of information failure. I think people had the information they needed to make a decision and they did. Some people prefer some facts to others. I’m not sure it’s our role to do something about that.”
Meanwhile, the media is still left to speculate about how a Trump administration will upend age-old Washington protocols. Incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus has suggested an end to the daily White House press briefings as Trump has been filling out his communication team, naming Sean Spicer as White House press secretary. Spicer is an experienced — and combative — Washington insider who has been with the RNC since 2011, and the appointment offers some clarity for news organizations. But how accessible Trump will be is still an unknown. He has said he will hold a press conference on Jan. 11. But he abruptly canceled a long-planned press conference last December. If next week’s presser takes place, it will be Trump’s first on-the-record back and forth with the media since July.
For CBS This Morning, the goal is more interviews at the table with all three anchors questioning guests. The show was among the few that did not allow Trump to call in during the campaign, instead insisting that he appear in the studio. Kadro says President-elect Trump is his top get for 2017. “It’s all about the chemistry at that table,” he says. “That’s when the show really comes alive.”
Meanwhile, with the inauguration on Jan. 20 and several potentially fraught cabinet nomination hearings on the horizon, the industry is girding for a tumultuous year.
“Our gains in 2016 were solid and incremental,” explains Rhodes. “Cable showed a lot more spikes in viewership around specific events that are not recurring. Even if it’s going to be a busy news environment in 2017, those scheduled events are not coming back. I think that bodes well for our approach.”
He’s not worried about the relationship with president-elect Trump. “For all of the discomfort some people might have, you have to say that the president-elect is a voracious media consumer,” says Rhodes. “So what’s wrong with that?”
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