By DAVID BAUDER
NEW YORK — David Rhodes plucks a cassette tape from a cart in the CBS newsroom. It’s an “On the Road” segment by Charles Kuralt that aired in 1971.
A classic, no doubt, and one that CBS News has stored digitally. So what is it doing there? What possible purpose does a 40-year-old tape serve in a newsroom undergoing renovation in 2011?
Rhodes, a half-year into his new job as CBS News president, shakes his head. It’s one of the small things he encounters in his effort to turn around a news division steeped in tradition (a gold plaque on the door to “CBS Evening News” producer Patricia Shevlin’s office a few steps away identifies it as Edward R. Murrow’s old office) yet has fallen into disrepair.
After a reboot of the evening newscast under Scott Pelley, Rhodes and his boss, CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager, are devoting much of their attention to the network’s cellar-dwelling morning show.
“We do think what we’re cooking up is remarkable,” said Rhodes, 37, who worked at Fox News Channel and Bloomberg before coming to CBS News.
That’s a tease, since only outlines of what they’re working on are known. PBS interviewer Charlie Rose told Newsweek that he’s talked to CBS about hosting the show, although no decisions have been made. CBS News hired Chris Licht, former executive producer of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” and he sits next to Rhodes at a horseshoe-shaped desk in the middle of the CBS newsroom. Veteran newsman John Miller was just hired as a correspondent. The future of the current on-air team of Chris Wragge, Erica Hill and Jeff Glor is murky. National weather forecasts, and forecaster Marysol Castro, were cast aside for local reports.
Watch An “Early Show” Report On The Rising Popularity Of Zombies:
The timing of a full-fledged relaunch is unclear, partly dependent on the physical renovation and construction of a new studio.
“We’re building a facility and office that will be the envy of the industry,” Licht said. “Imagine how important that is to a staff that is working in what can only be described as the scent of Barney Miller.”
Licht’s hiring led many in the industry to assume CBS wanted to create its version of “Morning Joe,” perhaps even the real thing if Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski became available. Rhodes said it was less what Licht did at MSNBC that was as important as the fact that “it was different and it was successful. That’s what we want.”
The show’s tenor is already clear. Much like the evening news, “The Early Show” has become a more serious newscast, upping the percentage of overseas and political news while leaving the makeup hints and rock concerts behind. Rhodes recalled seeing a karaoke contest on “The Early Show” shortly after he started at CBS. He wondered, “Tell me how this is news, exactly?”
On the wall of his office, Rhodes has a chart that tracks viewership of NBC’s “Today” show, ABC’s “Good Morning America” and CBS’ show. The first two are almost mirror images: when one goes up a little, the other goes down. CBS, well behind, seems immune to the others’ fluctuations.
He doesn’t see the point in trying to copy them.
“CBS has finally come to understand what people have been saying for years: You’ll never beat the `Today’ show by trying to be the `Today’ show,” said Beth Knobel, a Fordham University journalism professor who worked at CBS News from 1997 to 2006.
The show now is “more reflective of CBS News values,” Rhodes said. “A lot of people might say, `It’s not going to work, a harder news approach.’ But we think there are a lot of people who are encouraged by that, want something like that and can’t find it anyplace else.”
Logic would seem to dictate doing something different than two more successful competitors. But even in third place, “The Early Show” has been profitable for CBS. Change puts that at risk.
After only a few weeks on the job, Rhodes wrote a tough memo to producers of “The Early Show,” angry that one morning’s program had done nothing to follow up on a newsworthy report made on “60 Minutes” the previous night. The oversight had hit on two pet peeves: not being aggressive in reporting and not having CBS newscasts work together to advance one another’s good stories.
The memo became public. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it delivered the message that there’s a new sheriff in town.
That doesn’t make Rhodes the bad cop to Fager’s good one. Fager is a CBS News lifer who knows every corner of the building and everyone in it. He’s eager to set a direction for the news division but didn’t want to leave his job producing “60 Minutes.” Rhodes, who brings another perspective after working at different news divisions, said the day-to-day management is what he signed on for.
CBS News has strengths beyond “60 Minutes.” “Sunday Morning” is doing well in the ratings and “Face the Nation” with Bob Schieffer is up in the ratings this fall while its NBC and ABC rivals are down.
The evening and morning shows have been down so long it’s possible they are locked into permanent third place positions. What’s important to the new leaders is that CBS News has a clear identity that reflects its history. If you’re the type of person who thinks too much fluff has seeped into network news, then CBS is your place.
There’s a long-gone swagger that has returned in recent months, epitomized by a promotional ad that touts CBS’ reporting and emphasis on substance. “Hey, it’s not like we invented original reporting on television,” the narrator says.
“Oh, wait,” he says, as the “60 Minutes” stopwatch ticks behind him. “Yes, we did.”
Knobel notices an improved morale when she sees some of her former colleagues.
“People are really happy that serious news guys are in charge at CBS,” she said. “They really understand the zeitgeist of CBS, what makes CBS News tick. And it’s not soft news.”
When Pelley replaced Katie Couric as the division’s top anchor this spring and moved across West 57th Street from the “60 Minutes” office (even though he’s continuing to do his full slate of stories at the newsmagazine), he immediately turned off the row of TV sets that displayed for the newsroom what the network’s competitors were doing.
There was no mistaking the intent: CBS News is going its own way.