Free Bryant Gumbel!

As "The Early Show" struggles for an audience, its host may be longing to escape.

By Sean Elder
Published April 7, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

It's been a bad week for Bryant Gumbel. First, CBS released its first-quarter ratings. "The Early Show," co-hosted by Gumbel and newcomer Jane Clayson, is tanking. The show is averaging 2.7 million viewers -- as opposed to "Today's" 6.2 million and ABC's "Good Morning America," which has gained viewers, with a reported 4.5 million.

Then the May issue of Brill's Content hit the newsstands, featuring an out-of-focus image of Gumbel and the cover line, "Can Anyone Fix This Picture?" The story, by Gay Jervey, portrayed a program on life-support, buoyed only by its executive producer (and longtime Gumbel booster) Steve Friedman.

Perhaps most humiliating was the observation, made by both the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly, that "The Early Show's" numbers were significantly worse than those posted for "CBS This Morning" in the same period last year. That program was the Tower Air of morning shows -- no frills, no stars, no audience -- while "The Early Show" launched last November with a new $30 million studio and all the hype the network could muster.

The list of suspects in this case is short. It is Gumbel's show, and almost everyone pins its seeming failure on him, or at least on people's perceptions of him. Clayson, a former L.A. correspondent for ABC, may have seemed out of her depth at first but now holds her own in interviews and hands-on features. (Her chemistry with Gumbel is almost nonexistent, though insiders say they really don't dislike each other.) And the show's formula -- a bit of news, a bit of service, a bit of fluff -- is no worse (or better) than its competitors.

Indeed, it's a formula the two men helped perfect. Friedman was a producer on NBC's "Today" when Gumbel was a co-host (with Jane Pauley), from 1981 to 1987, and then again in 1993-94 (when Gumbel was less successfully paired with Katie Couric). If you can't blame the recipe, critics figure, you have to fault the chef -- or the main ingredient.

In the interest of establishing what most of us intuited, Brill's Content hired a research and consulting firm to conduct several focus groups testing viewers' responses to Gumbel. The conclusion: People don't like him. They find him arrogant, condescending, uncaring. They feel that if they were drowning, Gumbel would not throw them a life preserver -- or, at the very least, would ask them what they had done to deserve it.

Conditional love is tough to sell before coffee.

Oddly enough, CBS knew this going in. Friedman's pitch for the truculent host was met with all kinds of negative research within the network (most obviously his failure to take prime time by storm in CBS's 1997 "Public Eye with Bryant Gumbel"). But Friedman persisted (armed with his own data), and Jervey makes a good case that it was his single-handed efforts that carried the day.

But such powers of persuasion won't amount to a hill of coffee beans in the anemic, decaffeinated world of morning television if Gumbel doesn't turn this boat around soon. For the record, both Friedman and CBS say they are committed to the show and its star for the long haul, and cite the slow growth of the Kate-and-Matt, Diane-and-Charlie pairings as evidence.

"I think a case can be made that the increased ratings for ABC in prime time translate into better ratings in the morning," said an ad executive at another network. "If the last thing you watch at night is ABC, then the first thing that you watch in the morning is ABC." And ABC, with the ubiquitous "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," rules prime time these days.

"Today" hosts Couric and Matt Lauer have achieved a kind of mythic status among their viewers (how else explain those people in the snow outside Rockefeller Plaza, Dr. Zhivago icicles dripping from their faces as they wave to folks back in Springfield?) But even the most dynamic of duos break up and try to move on. Witness Kathie Lee. Or, for that matter, Gumbel.

After watching "The Early Show" the past several mornings, I think I see something other than arrogance in Gumbel's manner. Call it ennui, perhaps, rising at times to the pitch of despair. As he shuffles the papers before a commercial, touting an upcoming visit with George Clooney and Noah Wyle ("talking about their relationship on and off the screen"), he seems barely able to feign interest.

This may work for David Letterman (who's actually been quite a bit peppier since his heart surgery -- nothing like a brush with death to focus the mind!), but at 7 a.m. it's disquieting. So much of morning programming is public-service oriented (here's Donna Shalala promoting national "Kick Butts Day") that someone needs to act like they care or we'll all be committing suicide (while ignoring the 12 Warning Signs).

Tuesday found him interviewing, via satellite, a Dutch family that had been attacked on high seas by modern pirates. A 13-year-old boy, Willem Van Tuijl, was shot and paralyzed as his parents stood by, helpless. They then waited 20 hours for help.

The kid, stretched out on a hospital gurney, was the object of Gumbel's admiration. "We're all struck here by how remarkably poised young Willem is -- how are the rest of you coping?"

"Not so good," the parents confessed. For an empathic presence like Couric, this would have been a slam-dunk: Milk that moment, baby. What did you feel when you saw your son being shot? But Gumbel had eyes for the stoic 10-year-old.

"What's been the worst part of this ordeal?" he asked him.

"It's all been pretty similar," says kid. "Nothing worse, nothing better."

The boy's mother, with great emotion, added, "Willem prayed with his heart that the pirates would change their lives."

Gumbel merely nodded distractedly. ("A pirate's life doesn't sound so bad ...")

The desire to run away from it all (even when "it" includes a salary estimated at $5 million a year) seems a leitmotif in Gumbel's interviews lately. His divorce from his long-estranged wife has been fodder for the tabloids and a running gag on Don Imus' radio show. The show's ratings are a matter of public record. And, according to the Brill's article, he isn't thriving on the fellowship of staff members, who are under strict orders to refrain from direct contact with the star.

On the street, outside the swanky new Central Park studios, even the bystanders were walking away ...

On Wednesday, Gumbel talked to Gloria Reuben, who left her role as an HIV-positive nurse on "ER" and is now singing backup for Tina Turner. (Talk about career changes.)

"I jumped into the abyss of the unknown," she told the anchor, who seemed to envy her chutzpah.

"If she were to say to you, 'Come on the road with me,' would you say no?" Reuben asked Gumbel, turning the tables on the interrogator.

"I'd say I can't dance."

Well, maybe it's time to start learning. Just put one foot in front of the other -- that's it! -- and start moving from side to side. And remember, you can't really embarrass yourself if no one's there to see you fall.

Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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