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“CBS This Morning” co-hosts Norah O’Donnell, Charlie Rose and Gayle King did a Super Bowl interview with Patriots owner Bob Kraft.

Heather Wines • CBS Broadcasting ,

Walter Cronkite set a serious tone that remains at CBS.

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CBS tries a more serious approach to morning show

  • Article by: Meredith Blake Los Angeles Times
  • February 25, 2013 - 12:20 AM

– It’s not quite 8 a.m. on a Monday, and in a dark control room on W. 57th Street, Chris Licht, executive producer of “CBS This Morning,” has already been up for nearly four hours. It’s the day after the Golden Globes, and both NBC’s “Today” and ABC’s “Good Morning America” lead with segments about the awards show; “CBS This Morning” opts for a report on the flu epidemic.

As the first hour of the broadcast — which includes a conversation about a proposed assault-weapons ban and a Scott Pelley interview with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor — winds down, Licht glances at the TV screens overhead to check in on the competition. In the middle of a Segway tour of Venice Beach, Matt Lauer is, for some reason, getting a fake tattoo of the “Today” logo on his forearm.

“Charlie Rose would never get a tattoo,” Lauer says with a sneer.

For Licht, this distinction is a point of pride, but it also hints at the difficulties facing “CBS This Morning,” launched in January 2012 with the ambitious goal of providing “a more thoughtful, substantive and insightful” alternative in morning television. Thirteen months later, “CBS This Morning” remains a distant third behind “Today” and “Good Morning America,” averaging about 2.65 million viewers.

But the show is up an impressive 20 percent in total viewers compared with the same time last year and is performing particularly well in Los Angeles, where it’s up about 60 percent in total households — no small feat, given how entrenched morning TV habits tend to be.

“Will it ever be at the level the ‘Today’ show was forever? Probably not,” said Bill Carroll, an analyst at Katz Television Group. “But if the audience is growing, that’s a good thing.”

Despite (or perhaps because of) the venerable reputation of CBS News — home to Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow and “60 Minutes” — the network has never been completely at ease in the chipper world of breakfast television.

“We’re not good at cooking, we don’t put on a good concert. I think maybe for too long we tried to be something that we’re not, and it wasn’t working,” says David Rhodes, president of CBS News.

A new direction

Enter Licht, the mastermind behind MSNBC’s buzzy “Morning Joe,” hired in May 2011 with a mandate to improve the network’s standing in the morning. Five months later, CBS announced plans for a program to be hosted by Gayle King, known to millions as Oprah’s best friend, PBS fixture Charlie Rose and Hill, the lone holdout from “The Early Show.”

With “Today” and “GMA” locked in an often tabloid-y, two-way death match, epitomized by the gimmicky face-off in April between guest hosts Sarah Palin and Katie Couric, respectively, “CBS This Morning” has quietly established itself as a destination for newsmakers not found in the pages of Us Weekly.

In what is probably its biggest “get,” Colin Powell endorsed President Obama for a second time on “CBS This Morning” last fall. King’s close ties to Winfrey have also come in handy: In January the daytime queen confirmed on “CBS This Morning” that Lance Armstrong had confessed to doping during their much-hyped interview.

Less tangibly but no less critically, “CBS This Morning” has also avoided becoming what Licht calls “a cult of personality” program — one where the hosts become the story. “That’s why you wouldn’t see a ‘Charlie-and-Gayle-try-this’ segment,” he says.

Not that chemistry isn’t important: In July, Hill was quietly replaced by White House correspondent Norah O’Donnell, a tenacious but cool-headed interviewer who has burnished the show’s hard-news credentials.

Of course, the first year has not been without its hiccups or embarrassments — most notably, a three-minute report on Manti Te’o and his (later-found-to-be-nonexistent) girlfriend. Nor does “CBS This Morning” entirely shy away from the human interest, celebrity-driven stories that remain the bread and butter of morning television, especially once King joins the broadcast in the 8 a.m. hour.

“We don’t feel that we’re above any story,” she says. “I think we can always figure out a way to tell a story that is relatable and entertaining while keeping our dignity intact. It doesn’t have to turn into silly school.”

On softer stories, the show makes its editorial priorities clear in small but telling ways: Instead of sending on-air talent to London to cover the royal pregnancy, as both “Today” and “GMA” did in December, “CBS This Morning” relied on local correspondents.

But even a diminished “Today” outpaces “CBS This Morning” by about 2 million viewers a day, which means Licht — who calls the show’s third-place status “unacceptable” — has his work cut out for him.

“If you compromise your core values to chase ratings, then it may be a short-term sugar high but ultimately you will not succeed,” he says.

In other words, don’t expect Charlie Rose to get that tattoo anytime soon.

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