It’s just the latest salvo in TV’s never-ending morning-news wars: CBS’ Gayle King is about to stroll into territory long dominated by ABC’s Robin Roberts.
Starting this fall, “CBS This Morning” will hold forth from a new studio in New York’s Times Square. The facility is located in the corporate headquarters of CBS News’ corporate parent, ViacomCBS, and once hosted the long-running MTV program “TRL.” It can be seen from the windows of the New York set that houses ABC morning rival “Good Morning America,” which operates a few blocks away. The decision was unveiled Thursday afternoon to CBS affiliates by Neeraj Khemlani and Wendy McMahon, the two executives recently placed in charge of the company’s news and stations units.
The studio will give the show’s team new ways to tell stories and new room to display them to viewers, says Shawna Thomas, who came aboard as executive producer of “CBS This Morning” in January. “This gives me more options for movement and more options to play,” she says in an interview.
Plans for the new location have been under consideration for several months, but they still represent one of the first big moves by CBS News under new executive management: Khemlani, a former senior news executive at Hearst, and McMahon, who was recently head of ABC’s owned and operated stations. CBS News tested the Times Square studio last year during Election Night, giving space to a broader array of anchors and technologies.
The shift is not without logistical and financial challenges, but an increase in viewership among TV’s A.M. programs can bring millions of dollars in advertising revenue. Both “GMA” and NBC’s “Today” make ready use of their New York City surroundings. “Today” anchors like Hoda Kotb, Savannah Guthrie and Al Roker regularly go out to a plaza at NBC’s Rockefeller Center facilities in New York to talk with crowds gathered around the program’s longtime home, Studio 1A. “GMA” anchors regularly step out of their large production facility into the heart of Times Square.
“CBS This Morning” has long stood apart from its rivals at NBC and ABC by eschewing some of the frillier elements of morning TV — no cooking segments, no Halloween costumes. The program raised some eyebrows recently by tapping celebrities like Drew Barrymore and Nate Burleson to fill in for co-anchor Tony Dokoupil in the 8 a.m. hour while he is on leave after having a new baby. The shuffle to Times Square, says Thomas, does not indicate that the CBS program is getting soft.
“We have longer, more in-depth pieces” than others, she says. “I am unwilling to sacrifice that kind of storytelling,” because “it is still our differentiator. This isn’t a knock on cooking segments by any means. They have their place. It’s just not necessarily us.”
King, Dokoupil and Anthony Mason will still face each other in the new environs, while seated at a round table — a signature stylistic element of the program. But Thomas envisions new areas for conversation between anchors and on-air guests. A couch setting is possible, and there will likely be new walls and screens that can help the show do “explainers,” and call up footage and pictures that help boost a story to viewers at home. Augmented reality graphics may also be on tap, but Thomas intends to use them judiciously, not to show off gee-whiz screen gimmicks to viewers.
Going outside into the New York neighborhood that is known as the “Crossroads of the World” is also on a menu of potential options. “If I think it can add to the show in a way that is interesting and informative to the audience, then I will take advantage of the fact that we are in the most central location” in New York, the executive producer says. “But I’m not going to follow or copy the other two shows. If we can do something interesting with it, then I will put them outside,” she says of the anchors.
“CBS This Morning” has long run third to its broadcast morning rivals, but all three programs are losing key viewers. Season to date as of May 16, the average audience for NBC’s “Today” between the ages of 25 and 54 is off 20% to around 1.03 million, according to Nielsen. The same crowd for ABC’s “GMA” is off 22% to 908,000. “CBS This Morning,” which has the smallest audience of the troika, saw its viewership between 25 and 54 fall 17%, to an average of 617,000 during the period.
In recent weeks, the CBS show has done the impossible. On the day after CBS’ broadcast of Super Bowl LIV, “CTM” captured more viewers than NBC’s “Today,” the first time that has happened since April of 1993. When Oprah Winfrey visited the program in March to discuss a revelatory interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle that appeared on CBS the prior evening, the show drew more viewers than either “Today” or “GMA.”
“I’m smart enough to know that a lot of that bump was Oprah, but I do think that we have a new level of energy among the staff,” says Thomas. “I do feel like there’s momentum.”
Advertisers have been putting more dollars into morning news in recent years. “CBS This Morning” captured $185.4 million from Madison Avenue in 2020, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending, compared with $164.5 million in 2018 — a jump of 12.7%. Meanwhile, ad dollars at “Today” rose to $357.6 million in 2020, up from $320.6 million in 2018 — a hike of 11.5%. Advertising at “GMA” inched up to $293.6 million in 2020, says Kantar, compared with $291.2 million — basically flat.
Thomas boasts an interesting resume that isn’t typical of many morning producers. She recently worked for Quibi, the short-form video service, and was D.C. bureau chief for Vice News. She also enjoyed a stint at NBC News, where she was a senior producer at “Meet the Press.”
“I think I bring a slightly different sentiment to things on some days,” she says, noting she’s not above using techniques she studied at Vice, which might present something interesting in a short and punchy vignette, rather than a full-blown segment. She also likes to remind staffers “that we do make TV for a living, and it should be as beautiful as possible. It is a visual medium.”
The fall won’t mark the first time CBS has put its morning program in a glitzy new facility. A previous edition of CBS morning TV, “The Early Show,” initially co-anchored by Bryant Gumbel, was housed in a studio in New York’s General Motors Building at a reported cost of tens of millions of dollars.