Skip to main content

In a Flyover State: How CBS CouldWake Up Its Mornings

All seven of my regular readers of this column know I like to stop every once in a while and toss around some of my own stupid ideas, to combat my pet peeve about journalists who sit around all day trashing everyone else's stupid ideas, but never have the guts to put forth any of their own.

So, for some time now, I’ve been mulling a new play for CBS in the mornings, one that would completely upset the morning television apple cart and put the network on the map in a big, big way.

Here goes. I would still air the current version of The Early Show at 7 a.m. and let it do battle with (and take the brunt of) the established powerhouse first hours of Today and Good Morning America.

And then at either 8 a.m. or 9 a.m.—and that strategy may have changed last week when Regis made his announcement—I would roll out my big guns. I would program a Live! knockoff for an hour or two, and it would star Katie Couric and Craig Ferguson. And it would be a massive, massive hit.

Yes, it sounds ridiculous. Yes, it would leave two gaping holes elsewhere in CBS’ schedule.

So what? Make big plays. This is broadcast TV and CBS is #1 in most categories, and Les Moonves has never been one to rest on his laurels. Mornings is something CBS just hasn’t been able to figure out, and CBS should be better. This would be a loud, big-tent move. Plus a new, huge hit in the mornings wouldn’t hurt at retrans time. So let’s break this down a little.

Katie Couric and the ‘Evening News’
I’m not really sure you need to say much more than “Katie Couric” and “mornings” to know the impact she would have and the massive buzz her return to anywhere in the morning would create. Yes, Today has done more than just fine with Meredith Vieira, but Katie is still a morning star. It’s OK to say she has been playing out of position on the CBS Evening News. That’s not a knock on Katie.

From syndication to staying at CBS News, Couric is getting showered with opportunities as her contract comes up. While her ratings have never reached what CBS hoped for in the Evening News slot, her show now is not much different than what you see on NBC and ABC in terms of quality.

Given that, and the fact that the evening news genre itself is not growing anytime soon, CBS could find someone to replace Couric and not take much of a hit there at all. In fact, it’s pretty obvious CBS brass is already considering what they will do if she moves off of Evening News, or even off of CBS, period.

Craig Ferguson and 12:35
If you haven’t seen Craig Ferguson’s 12:35 a.m. show after Letterman, you are missing some fun. Before he brings out a guest, it is closer to cable access TV than to Johnny Carson, and that is meant as a compliment. It is self-deprecating, creative as hell, and either brilliant or stupid, depending on your opinion and possibly your pharmacist.

Ferguson has not made his name in late night with huge guest bookings á la Leno and Letterman, or the often brilliant and buzz-worthy taped comedy of a Jimmy Kimmel. People who tune in do so for Craig. They buy into him so much that they (okay, we) laugh at a ridiculous dancing horse and a robot skeleton that throws out the same lines constantly.

Anyway, despite Ferguson’s success in late night, I have always thought his sensibility and ability to play to (and with) the camera would absolutely kill in daytime. He has the perfect personality for that femaleheavy audience.

Yes, it would create a big hole at 12:35. But CBS—and Worldwide Pants—have proven they are up to that challenge. Plus, if CBS really wants Jon Stewart to replace Letterman one day, Ferguson going big in the mornings could eliminate a sticky situation with Craig wanting Dave’s chair. This is smart, because we all know how well planning your late-night moves five years out works.

Speaking of which, while Late Night World War II recently made for a great Bill Carter book, the fact is the late-night genre is only getting more fragmented and the economics are getting tougher and tougher to make work.

Why It Would Work
The idea really hit me watching a recent Couric appearance on Ferguson. The chemistry between the two jumped through the TV, and they played fantastically well off of each other.

But I would not just throw them to the dogs at 7 a.m. and use them in a typical morning-show format—and I doubt Katie would want to. That’s why I would blatantly rip off the Regis and Kelly feel: Open with banter about current events and everything going on in their lives, and then bring in some guests later.

They can both be silly, they can both interview, and they can both connect with that target audience. And when needed, Katie can carry the load on any hard news and more serious stuff, though again, that is not the crux of this show.

Initially, I thought about bringing them on at 8 a.m.—where nothing new really starts. But then Regis announced last week he was calling it quits. If I am CBS, I smell blood in the water, so I may think about trying to step on the throat of Live! and go at 9.

There are plenty of more grounded reasons why this idea is among my worst (and that says something), from the two holes it would leave on CBS to the money it would cost to pay these two in that daypart.

Except there’s this one thing in its favor: The show would be fantastic, a huge hit, and would finally give CBS something that works in the mornings, one of the few places the often top-rated network hasn’t lived up to its crown.

E-mail comments to and follow him on Twitter: @BCBenGrossman