CBS Keeps Its Eye on the Prize With Bigger Focus on Hard News

Armed With Revamped Morning Show, Tougher Evening-News Anchor, the Network Banks on a No-Fluff Strategy to Bolster Ratings, Trump Rivals

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With eyes riveted two weeks ago on Katie Couric's re-emergence on "Good Morning America" and Sarah Palin's guest-host role on NBC's "Today," you'd think CBS's effort, a perennial laggard in the AM-show wars, would be lost in the shuffle again. Not so.

'CBS This Morning' hosts (from left) Gayle King, Charlie Rose and Erica Hill
'CBS This Morning' hosts (from left) Gayle King, Charlie Rose and Erica Hill Credit: Heather Wines/CBS
While Ms. Couric offered her famous smile on ABC, Oprah Winfrey sat down on "CBS This Morning" and delivered a business-news bombshell: Had she known how tough launching a cable network was, she might not have tried with OWN, her joint venture with Discovery Communications. The revelation, which reflected fragility in a famous personality, probably rocked the corporate suite at Discovery. (At Discovery's recent upfront presentation, Ms. Winfrey said she expected better results at OWN by 2014.)

"We're just over here doing our thing, and we think we're attracting more people as a result," said David Rhodes, president of CBS News.

After an unsuccessful flirtation with Ms. Couric's lighter style and a rather conventional morning-news show, CBS News is trying to differentiate itself with hard news. It's a gutsy move considering that many of its rivals have thrived -- and generated lots of ad revenue -- by staying more ambivalent about a hard-news image.

Scott Pelley of 'CBS Evening News'
Scott Pelley of 'CBS Evening News' Credit: John Paul Filo/CBS
"In this day and age, the idea of going "anti-fluff' is important," CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves said in an interview.

Since Mr. Rhodes and CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager took the reins at CBS News last year, the pair have put in place a new evening-news anchor, Scott Pelley, with a reputation for more gravitas than Ms. Couric; expanded Sunday's "Face the Nation" to an hour from 30 minutes; revamped the morning-news program with hosts like Charlie Rose and Gayle King; relaunched "Person to Person," an occasional newsmagazine whose roots date back to when Edward R. Murrow held sway at the network; and even hired Wynton Marsalis as a cultural correspondent.

"I do think there's a real hunger for real news in America," said Mr. Fager, also executive producer of powerhouse "60 Minutes." "These are rough times. The economy is a real problem for most Americans, and the world is a relatively unstable place right now."

Though CBS's evening and morning newscasts continue to trail their rivals, the audience for Mr. Pelley's newscast grew by 5.8%, to 5.97 million, in 2011, according to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. That's more growth -- although from a lower base -- than NBC's "Nightly News" and ABC's "World News" had in the period.

As for the revamped morning show, said Mr. Rhodes, "we just need to keep our head down, doing our work, and grow."

None of this is to say you can't find serious work at NBC or ABC or that CBS's operatives aren't prone to saying something lightweight. ("What makes you a great businessman? I mean, you really have brought magical talent to business," said Mr. Rose to Magic Johnson on the April 10 edition of "CBS This Morning.")

CBS's focus is one borrowed from TV's highest-rated newsmagazine show, its own "60 Minutes."

"News has become a pretty generic commodity, so it's not really news they're selling," said Victor Neufeld, executive producer at Fenton Communications and formerly with ABC's "20/20," CBS's "Early Show" and CNN's "Paula Zahn Now."

"It's not even hard news. It's the allure of what has been connected to "60 Minutes,' " Mr. Neufeld added. "If CBS can spread the power ... of that brand throughout its programming, that is smart management."

CBS has reason to expand the "60 Minutes" feel to other news properties. The show commands about $122,000 for a 30-second ad, according to an annual Ad Age survey -- well above NBC's "Dateline" or "Rock Center," ABC's "20/20," and even some prime-time dramas. The show's history and devotion to longer-form segments promote a blue-chip image that is hard to duplicate.

Whether or not the network can trump ABC or NBC's better-watched morning and evening newscasts remains unanswered.

Mr. Moonves implied that he can tolerate a slow build. "We do care about the business side, but it's more important that they represent us in a really positive light and as a cultural force," he said. CBS News turns a profit, he added, though not as much as other network divisions.

Despite the high-minded intent behind the news effort, no one at the network wants the smallest viewership, even if shunning frilly topics could mean drawing a narrower, albeit more-educated and higher-income, crowd.

"We're not doing this as an exercise in how to do quality broadcast journalism," said Mr. Fager. "We want quantity as well."

Mike Wallace: Showman, Newsman, Legend

Mike Wallace was known for his hard-hitting interviews on "60 Minutes," but he was also a consummate showman who found a way to sell himself in TV's earliest days.

Mike Wallace
Mike Wallace Credit: Peter Freed

Before joining CBS in 1968 as a co-host (with Harry Reasoner) of "60 Minutes," Mr. Wallace, who died at the age of 93 last week, served as host for a number of radio and TV programs, first as narrator/announcer, then as a reporter, actor and program host. There was no hard line then between entertaining audiences and informing them, and Mr. Wallace was able to use his talents to do both. He even appeared in cigarette advertising (a strange job, given his later controversial work investigating tobacco companies), and had to promise to drop his commercial endorsements before CBS would bring him onboard.

His first network-TV news program was ABC's "The Mike Wallace Interview," but he got his chops by working on a local New York TV show called "Night Beat," in which he relentlessly questioned his guests. Some people called the program "Brow Beat."

Of course, Mr. Wallace will best be remembered for the decades he held forth on "60 Minutes," where he did hard-hitting pieces on everything from Dr. Jack Kevorkian to legal prostitution in Nevada. He pioneered the use of the "hidden camera" technique, in which misdeeds were captured on film and then shown to interview subjects to provoke maximum shock on screen. He was also a showman who knew the world of marketing well. Mr. Wallace started in radio in 1940 at WXYZ in Detroit, where he was the narrator for "The Green Hornet" and also a "Cunningham News Ace," reading the news sponsored by the Cunningham Drugstore chain. He even appeared as the lead in a police drama, "Stand By for Crime." The 1949 show was the first to be transmitted from Chicago to the East Coast.

In a business where the story is supposed to come first and the reporter's personality a distant second, Mr. Wallace proved the two could run neck-and-neck. —Brian Steinberg

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