Morning TV's Tabloid Turn

Article excerpt

Byline: Howard Kurtz

As CBS goes serious for sunrise, stars at rival networks grumble about the fluffy fare.

For three frustrating DECADES, CBS has been the biggest loser in the morning. Now, rather than trying to beat Today and Good Morning America at their own game, the network wants to change the rules.

In a bid to move upscale, CBS came extremely close to signing Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, the hosts of MSNBC's political chatfest Morning Joe--so close that they were promised complete creative control and the deal was set to be announced. But as the duo was having second thoughts about the switch, NBC chief executive Steve Burke killed the idea, saying he wouldn't let them abandon one of his favorite shows.

Last week, CBS's Early Show unveiled Plan B, tapping veteran PBS talker Charlie Rose and Oprah pal Gayle King, an unorthodox pairing that could produce a more cerebral program--or simply a snoozefest. It's a gamble that the rival shows privately denigrate, given their ratings success with a formula heavy on crime and celebrities. But even some of their own stars are uneasy wading into that swamp.

At GMA, there is no longer talk of a newsier, politics-laden program led by George Stephanopoulos, the onetime Clinton White House aide brought in last year from the wonky world of Sunday-morning television. Instead, a new producer has pushed the ABC show firmly down the tabloid path, to the point where co-host Robin Roberts has argued they have gone too far.

"I'll be honest, it's been an adjustment for me, the lighter fare," she tells Newsweek. "I want to be No. 1. I don't want to sell my soul to the devil to be No. 1." The former ESPN anchor admits that she was seen as being "too light" when she became a co-host in 2005, but "here I am the one saying, 'We need to be harder ... Can we give them some medicine? We give them a lot of candy now.'"

Today co-host Ann Curry, who specializes in humanitarian disasters, voices a similar lament: "I'm at my core a hard-news reporter. I want more spinach and less sugar in this big meal we give viewers. Sometimes I feel personally our balance isn't quite right. I fight for stories that matter."

On a recent morning at ABC's Times Square studio, after a segment on presidential candidate Herman Cain battling sexual-harassment allegations, Stephanopoulos found himself tossing to tawdry tales: "Now the latest on the search for Baby Lisa Irwin ... Kim Kardashian speaking out: why did she call it quits [on her marriage] so soon?"

Stephanopoulos, who notes he still gets to do plenty of politics, says he tries to bring his curiosity to every subject, but "you don't pretend Kim Kardashian is as important as a story about the European debt crisis."

British producer James Goldston took over GMA this year after steering Nightline past Jay Leno and David Letterman by adding more low-rent stories. He calls Stephanopoulos "the most formidable political journalist of his generation," but one who understands "you have to be very quick on your feet and able to show a lighter side."

The lighter side is working for GMA, with the program lately cutting the Today show's perennial lead in half, trailing 500,000 viewers behind the NBC show's audience of 5. …