June 24, 2020

Mornings beyond Today: the history of those "other" morning shows

Walter Cronkite and Charlemagne bring you the morning news on CBS. 
You know her, you love her, you can't live without her! My good friend Jodie Peeler, the erstwhile scribe at Garroway at Large, is back with a wonderful guest column on the checkered history of ABC's and CBS's attempts to compete with NBC's groundbreaking Today. For ABC, the second time was the charm; as for CBS, well. . .

by Jodie Peeler

Early on the morning of January 14, 1952, a cop saw Mort Werner standing on a corner near his home in Scarsdale, New York. “What are you doing out so late?” he asked. Werner explained that he was waiting for a ride into Manhattan, where he would help put a television program on NBC at seven that morning. The patrolman scoffed. “You must be out of your mind!”

No one could have known the first shaky morning of a new program called Today was the first shot in a revolution. A time period that policemen scoffed at and critics thought a money-loser turned out to be a gold mine. And when Today turned out to be a real money-maker for its parent network, imitation wasn’t long in following. That imitation – and that revolution – continues to this day. But how did we get to where we are now?

Today was two years old when CBS took its first whack at the morning slot. The Morning Show, anchored by Walter Cronkite with Charles Collingwood as newsman, debuted in March 1954. To compete with J. Fred Muggs, The Morning Show featured the puppets of Bil and Cora Baird, including a lion named Charlemagne and a “disk doggie” named Humphrey. Charlemagne would offer commentary about news events, then would dance with Humphrey when records were played. Just before the show debuted, among the many well-wishes was a telegram reading “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” It was signed by Dave Garroway, Jack Lescoulie and Frank Blair.

Critics offered praise for The Morning Show but noted how much it seemed to imitate Today, right down to some of its competitor’s penchant for gadgetry; for instance, a weather map with flashing storm symbols and blinking arrows drew comparisons to a pinball machine or “something swiped from Coney Island.”

Cronkite had heard rumors that the CBS entertainment division wanted control over the program, but hadn’t seen any substantial signs to that effect. But when Cronkite was out for a few weeks in mid-1955 after an operation, the program experimented with a more entertainment-oriented format. The next month, Cronkite found out through a newspaper column that he was to be replaced with up-and-coming comedian Jack Paar, a favorite of Jack Benny’s. “I felt the show still had a future as an information show,” Cronkite told a reporter at the time, “but suggested that if this is what they wanted they should go the whole way and hire a comedian. I pointed out that entertainment was not my metier. I was not trained for it.” Cronkite went back to harder-news assignments, as well as hosting Sunday News Special and You Are There.

Paar took the helm on August 16 and drew favorable comparisons to Garroway; columnist John Crosby called his casting “in a way a quiet victory for NBC.” Charles Collingwood and the Baird puppets remained, but joining the ensemble was singer Betty Clooney (sister of Rosemary); musician Pupi Campo, who gradually took part in comedic skits; and bandleader Jose Melis. Singer Julius LaRosa, famously terminated on Arthur Godfrey’s program, joined the cast in November. A review praised the show: “The Garrowaycast has a sort of functional, stainless efficiency but who wants functional fare when you can have fun?”

Jack Paar and Dick Van Dyke: two of many following in
Walter Cronkite's footsteps
But by May 1955 Paar was hearing that CBS wanted to take the program back towards news, as well as providing time for children’s programming. Paar protested that his humor couldn’t be tailored to younger viewers, and left The Morning Show to take an afternoon time slot. Texas humorist John Henry Faulk, who had been doing various programs on CBS radio and television, pinch-hit for Paar until a young comedian named Dick Van Dyke took over the show. That October, The Morning Show was cut to one hour to make way for a new children’s program called Captain Kangaroo. Van Dyke’s morning ensemble included a female singer, Sandy Stewart, and an up-and-coming vocalist named Merv Griffin. At one point Walter Cronkite was summoned back as Van Dyke’s newsman to help stabilize the newscast.

But nothing could soothe executives’ itch to try something new, and in February Van Dyke was out. Will Rogers, Jr., a favorite of network executive Lou Cowan, took over the newly-retitled Good Morning! in February 1956. Rogers, who had been a guest-host on Today while Garroway was on vacation, had done some acting and television work among his many other fields of endeavor. Rogers drew praise for his folksy, low-key manner. But some critics were growing weary of the constant attempts CBS was making to compete with Today. One columnist likened it to “starting a newspaper in a town that already has one.”

By January 1957 the rumors were in full flight, and they became fact in early April when Good Morning! was replaced by a morning program hosted by 28-year-old country singer Jimmy Dean. “We’re going to give ‘em something totally different from the Garroway show,” Dean promised. “We’re going to give ‘em country music, which is smilin’ music.” And The Jimmy Dean Show started off strong, enough to prompt a little heartburn over at NBC. But on December 13, CBS surrendered, giving the 7 a.m. hour to the affiliates.

John Hart and Joseph Benti
When CBS returned to the morning hours in September 1963, it was with a decidely hard news tack. The CBS Morning News initially debuted at 10 a.m., displacing Harry Reasoner’s morning program Calendar. In time the Morning News moved to the traditional earlier hour, and for the next 15 years it maintained a hard news format with a succession of hard news anchors: Mike Wallace, Joseph Benti, John Hart, Hughes Rudd, Bruce Morton, Richard Threlkeld and Lesley Stahl. The exception came in 1973 when Rudd was famously (and disastrously) paired with former Washington Post reporter Sally Quinn in an effort to boost ratings. On her debut telecast, Quinn worked while battling a case of flu. It was a harbinger. The “Beauty and the Grouch” experiment went disastrously wrong; Quinn’s lack of experience in television showed, and the twosome could not match the chemistry evident on Today. Quinn returned to the Post in early 1974, and hosting duties went back to established CBS correspondents.

As Peter J. Boyer wrote in Who Killed CBS?, the hard news morning format came in large part because CBS chairman William S. Paley wanted the morning block to be free of commercial pressures. But it also happened Paley was an avid viewer of the CBS Morning News, watching each broadcast while having breakfast and often calling news division president Richard Salant with suggestions about tiny details. Jokes flew at CBS that its morning news shows were for a loyal audience of one.

Bill Beutel and Stephanie Edwards 
Meanwhile, what was happening at ABC? The Alphabet Network, always having to make do with less, didn’t try a morning show until the January 1975 debut of AM America. It was based on a program Ralph Story hosted on KABC-TV in Los Angeles, and featured co-anchors Bill Beutel and Stephanie Edwards, with Peter Jennings as newsman. The intent was good but the execution failed to get a following. Some stations pre-empted it for their own local broadcasts. ABC executive Fred Silverman, who had decreed AM America sleepy and dreadful, had seen a program called The Morning Exchange that the Cleveland ABC affiliate aired instead of AM America, as well as a Boston-based program called Good Morning. These programs had a much less formal format, eschewing a traditional set in favor of something resembling a family room, and putting more emphasis on features than hard news.

These elements went into a new network program titled Good Morning America, which replaced AM America in November 1975. Its hosts were two actors, David Hartman and Nancy Dussault. Within three years Good Morning America was providing Today with serious competition. On the program, there was no mistaking that Hartman was the dominant personality; Dussault, and then Sandy Hill, played unmistakable second chair. Both grew frustrated and left. Hill’s replacement, Joan Lunden, grew unhappy being stuck with softer fare, asserted herself to get more substantial stories, and eventually got a contract that made her a full-fledged co-host. Ratings during the 1980s continued to rise, sparking a decades-long back-and-forth between Today and Good Morning America. Charles Gibson replaced the retiring Hartman in 1987, and although there have been many host and format changes, Good Morning America has proven Today’s equal in popularity, reach and stability.

Which, as we’ll see, is much more than can be said for CBS. In January 1979, the network tried yet again with another format. It inaugurated a series of morning newscasts under the Morning umbrella (Monday Morning, Tuesday Morning, and so on) and expanded the broadcasts to six days a week. Bob Schieffer anchored the weekday newscasts, while Charles Kuralt took Sunday duty. In time, Kuralt was persuaded to take over all six newscasts, and the weekday installments’ title was shortened to Morning. And Captain Kangaroo, which had once been the cause of the morning programs’ abbreviation, had to give back time in September 1981 when the news programs expanded to 90 minutes, starting at 7:30 Eastern. Diane Sawyer joined Kuralt as co-anchor of the weekday programs. Morning went to a full two hours in January 1982, and Captain Kangaroo was shoved to a 6:30 Eastern time slot titled Wake Up With The Captain. (Captain Kangaroo would end up on weekends that fall, but the damage was done; several affiliates dropped the program and a very unhappy Bob Keeshan left CBS in 1984.)

Morning was a dignified program that began to build a following. It worked to avoid the sorts of show-business and fluff stories that populated Today and Good Morning America. But it remained in third place. New CBS News president Van Gordon Sauter thought the Morning programs sleepy and dull, and within months Kuralt was jettisoned in favor of Bill Kurtis, who had worked with Sauter at WBBM-TV in Chicago. (Kuralt, the minimalist studio, and the format would remain on Sunday Morning; for years, its title sequence would remain unchanged, the days of the week marching up the screen to Don Smithers’ recording of Abblasen a vestige of its brief life as a weekday program. Sunday Morning remains on the air, hosted now by Jane Pauley; somewhat modified to meet today’s times, Sunday Morning remains a relaxed and dignified reminder of a different time in television, when stories had time to breathe, and retains a devoted following. It is perhaps the last televised remnant of Mr. Paley’s network.)

Phyllis George and Bill Kurtis don't hug it out
The new CBS Morning News, which debuted in March 1982, was everything Morning wasn’t. It had a computer-generated title sequence with a synthesized theme that demanded viewers’ attention. It had a busy modern studio. For nearly two years the new Morning News, headed by former Good Morning America producer George Merlis, made progress in the ratings. But, wouldn’t you know it, that’s when things began to fall apart. Merlis was abruptly fired. Sawyer didn’t like the post-Merlis direction of the broadcast and was being courted by the 60 Minutes unit. When word leaked she was leaving, she was abruptly let go from the Morning News. Jane Wallace and Meredith Vieira had on-air trial runs as Sawyer’s replacement, and it seemed Wallace had the job secured. Instead, the job went to someone outside the news division. Phyllis George, late of The NFL Today, was signed to a huge multi-year deal to co-host the Morning News. Her initial excitement did not last long, as the news format threw someone who had no background in journalism. Among her on-air gaffes, the most notorious came in her May 1985 interview with Gary Dotson and Cathy Webb, who had recanted a rape accusation that had sent Dotson to prison. At the end of the interview, George asked Dotson and Webb, “How about a hug?” Nor did it help that many within CBS News, still miffed that Jane Wallace was snubbed, felt no shortage of schadenfreude with each of George’s missteps. Bill Kurtis, unhappy with the direction of the program, returned to WBBM-TV in July 1985. Bob Schieffer filled in for Kurtis until more permanent arrangements could be made. The following month, CBS let George go after eight months on the Morning News. Maria Shriver and Forrest Sawyer then took over the program until August 1986, when it was abruptly announced the third-place Morning News would be replaced by a program produced by the entertainment division.

Shriver and Sawyer vanished, replaced by a succession of guest hosts until the new program debuted in January. The Morning Program, hosted by Mariette Hartley and Rolland Smith, with weather from Mark McEwen and comedy from Bob Saget, was an instant disaster. Affiliates threatened to flee unless changes were made. By November The Morning Program was gone and News again had control of the time slot. A new program, CBS This Morning, debuted November 30. It proved durable, but could never break out of third place; Today and Good Morning America were too dominant. Oddly enough, ratings went up when CBS allowed affiliates to produce one-hour local newscasts with CBS This Morning content, then carry a second hour in full.

CBS conceded in October 1999 and replaced This Morning with The Early Show. Host Bryant Gumbel had anchored Today through the 1980s and early 1990s; co-host Jane Clayson had been an ABC correspondent. The broadcast had some memorable moments; The Early Show was in progress when the September 11 attacks commenced, and Gumbel anchored the initial network bulletins. Clayson’s memorable 2002 interview with Martha Stewart during a cooking segment, when Stewart testily refused to answer questions about an investigation into her stock dealings, generated buzz in those pre-YouTube days and was re-enacted in a TV movie. But The Early Show proved no better than its predecessors at finding long-term stability. Gumbel and Clayson left the program in 2002 and a number of casting changes were made over the next several years. Julie Chen would move from newscaster to co-host, and Harry Smith (who had once hosted This Morning) would co-host until 2010. Others who passed through included Hannah Storm, Rene Syler, Russ Mitchell, Maggie Rodriguez and Erica Hill. She and Chris Wragge would continue with the show until its end in January 2012.

The hosts of CBS This Morning in happier days
And then...everything old became new again. CBS premiered a new morning program, titled (wait for it!)...CBS This Morning. Originating from the purpose-built Studio 57 (so named because it faced West 57th Street) at the CBS Broadcast Center in New York, CBS This Morning featured co-anchors Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Erica Hill. The new This Morning was unapologetically hard news and discussion-driven, and had in Rose one of the best interviewers in television. It also avoided the forced happy-talk that defined other morning programs. Hill left later in 2012 to be replaced by Norah O’Donnell. For the next five years the CBS morning program had a stability that seemed unusual for a CBS morning program. It got attention, made ratings gains and earned awards. The three hosts had good chemistry, with moments of spontaneity and genuine fun. It seemed too good, and it was, and it came to an abrupt end. In November 2017, eight women accused Rose of sexual harassment. CBS immediately suspended him, and the next day a visibly shaken O’Donnell and King reported the story. John Dickerson of Face the Nation stepped in as co-anchor, then both he and O’Donnell left in May 2019; Dickerson joined 60 Minutes, while O’Donnell became anchor of the CBS Evening News. Anthony Mason and Tony Dokoupil now anchor This Morning with Gayle King.

The lineup today
Has CBS This Morning broken the CBS morning curse? At times it has shown promise against its competitors, but its faster-paced and more pop-culture-oriented competitors Today and Good Morning America continue to slug it out for the top spot. This Morning particularly lags in the much-desired 25-to-54 demographic, drawing about half the viewers in those categories that each of the other programs pull. And both Good Morning America and Today draw the outside in; Good Morning America, with its Times Square studio, and Today with its famous windows that look out on Rockefeller Plaza, are magnets for tourists and fans. CBS This Morning, in contrast, originates from a not-particularly-scenic building nestled in Hell’s Kitchen; its window isn’t a magnet for tourists or devotees, and even if it were, the program would likely go out of its way not to show them. On the other hand, This Morning has won critical praise and earned a Peabody Award for its reporting. (And, speaking personally, it’s my favorite among the morning broadcasts...but perhaps you’d expect that from me.)

Maybe it’s all somewhat moot in an era when fewer people are watching broadcast television and there are a dozen different channels offering similar content. One hopes CBS has realized it’s not such a bad thing to be the alternative – and with no need for a window, puppets, or even a weather map that looks like a pinball machine. TV  


  1. Comments on each of the network competitors to Today:

    1. ABC: Peter Jennings was a last-minute replacement as AM America newsreader. The original plan was for Bob Kennedy, host of the Kennedy and Company show on WLS-TV in Chicago (which after several format changes eventually begat The Oprah Winfrey Show) was tapped to be the newsreader but died from bone cancer shortly before AM America's premiere (there's a closed circuit test from the FuzzyMemories channel including Kennedy alongside Bill Beutel and Stephanie Edwards)

    2. CBS: I don't remember where I read this, but remember reading that Bob Saget bailed on the Morning Program early to take the Danny Tanner role on "Full House" (Saget was the original choice from the start, but his Morning Program commitments led to John Posey being cast for the original pilot)

  2. Very interesting read, also from a country where we seem to have a similar pattern of two network breakfast shows kept in reasonable health with a third somewhat struggling. Although the natural order has changed recently with the usually 2nd ranked Today now coming 3rd and the underdog ABC News Breakfast has been the quiet achiever, slowly building up over the last 10 years and has now slipped into 2nd place. Sunrise continues to beat them both easily.

    The Ten Network had success with Good Morning Australia in the 1980s but more recent (and expensive) attempts to get back into breakfast battle have failed dismally.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!