Freewheeling news anchor and Oprah BFF Gayle King celebrates five years with 'CBS This Morning'

For Gayle King, being Oprah Winfrey’s best friend has its privileges — and some obligations.

One of them was alerting Winfrey, an avid reader, to what was happening on television.

“They used to call me ‘Gayle King, Eyewitness News’ because I’d call and say, ‘Oprah, turn on the TV,  O.J. is on the run,’” King recalled during a recent lunch in Manhattan. “She once said, ‘There’s this show “Friends,” have you heard of it? They’re coming to me and asking if I want them on the show.’ I was always her touchstone for what was going on in the world.”

These days Winfrey is getting her updates from King along with the 3.7 million viewers who watch her on “CBS This Morning,” which celebrates five years on the air on Monday.

At 62, King has reached a new pinnacle in a four-decade career by becoming a morning TV star alongside coanchors Charlie Rose and Norah O’Donnell. She recently signed a lucrative long-term deal to remain with the program, which launched with the bold claim that “The News Is Back in the Morning.”

King recalls how some critics believed the positioning of the show as a smarter alternative to NBC’s “Today” and ABC’s “Good Morning America” was ambitious and perhaps a bit audacious.

“We had a lot of haters and a lot of naysayers,” she said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen.”

But along with the ratings growth that “CBS This Morning” has experienced — up 45% since its first year — King says she knows that the program has lived up to its promise. Her friends who work for the competition tell her so.

“They’ll say, ‘It’s so frustrating to see what you’re doing compared to what we’re doing,’” King said. “Friends from other networks,  including executives,  have all come to me at different times to say, ‘I like what you guys are doing, I wish we were doing more of it.’”

Such candor is common from King. Morning TV anchors don’t normally use the term “bad ass” to describe an upcoming guest, but King does. She is freewheeling when it comes to talking about her own life. She doesn’t shy away from discussing her age. She posts on Instagram about her weight. She admits to having changed the spelling of her name from Gail because she liked the way it looked with a “y” and an “e.” (“Don’t you think Gayle is a prettier spelling?” she asks.)

There were reports of her being among the most outspoken anchors at a post-election gathering of media heavyweights at Trump Tower with President-elect Donald Trump.

It’s King’s willingness to speak her mind that adds a what-will-she-say-next tension to “CBS This Morning” and has people like former “Today” coanchor Bryant Gumbel watching.

“You watch her and you can see there is no guile,” said Gumbel, now the host of HBO’s “Real Sports.” “Her edit button, like mine, doesn’t work. My edit button doesn’t work in an acerbic way. Her edit button doesn’t work in a nice way. Sometimes she says things that make me laugh out loud. She’s a good person, and she has natural curiosity and natural enthusiasm.”

When “CBS This Morning” was being conceived, the network’s news executives believed King’s ebullient personality and pop culture savvy would balance the gravitas of Rose, well-known to viewers through “60 Minutes” and his sober talk show that airs on PBS stations (O’Donnell joined “CBS This Morning” later). Neither Rose nor King had a track record in morning television or working in an ensemble setting, and CBS had never had a real success against “Today” and “GMA.” But Chris Licht, who developed and produced “CBS This Morning,” was sold on King, having used her as a highly prepared and engaging guest on the MSNBC program “Morning Joe.”

 “There isn’t a focus group in America that would have put Charlie Rose and Gayle King together,” said Licht, now executive producer of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” “It’s not as crazy as it looks on paper. They knew each other. They traveled in the same circles and would see each other at the same events. They are both at the same place in their lives where they are comfortable in their own skin.”

The show launched with King joining midway at 8 a.m. as Licht believed a three-anchor setup would slow the pace of the news-intensive first hour. But his second in command, Ryan Kadro, now executive producer of  “CBS This Morning,” pushed to have King at the top of the program as  it became apparent she was comfortable across all subject areas.

“Charlie liked it, and Norah liked it, and we never looked back,” Licht said.

King, who had been hosting a talk show on Winfrey’s OWN network before joining CBS, did have to make some adjustments. She is so at ease with expressing her opinions that she’s had to learn to restrain herself when straight reporting is required. When told there are viewers who sense she is holding back sometimes, she laughs.

“Yes, Gayle is,” she said. “That is true. I know that it’s a news program. I also know I’m a human being. I’m not a robot. We’re not talking to robots. To me, sometimes it’s OK to have a human emotion or human reaction.”

People who have worked with King describe her as having a sunny personality even when the camera is not on her. (“Yellow is my favorite color,” she said, confirming the description.)  She is described as a morale booster in the “CBS This Morning” studio, knowing the names of each staffer and crew member. Every year she brings in a chef and throws a party for them.

King says being on television has always made her happy. (“I would say I’m having the best time of my life, but I was having a great time anchoring local news.”) Being on a set that displays the world map used on the “CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite,” the newscast her father watched, is particularly gratifying for her.

“My dad died when I was a freshman in college, and I do wish he could have seen that,” she said. “He would have gotten a kick out of that.”

The morning TV grind does have its challenges. The fitness tracker on King’s wrist shows she had four hours sleep the night before, which is typical for her. Even with a 3:30 a.m. wakeup time, she still does what she calls “drive-bys” at galas and premiere parties in New York. While the schedule means she spends weekends exhausted and experiencing “some fetal position moments,” it’s worth it for the front-row seat to world events.

King, a Maryland native who as a child lived in Turkey, where her father worked as an electronic engineer, has never let the TV business control her life. She was once asked by Winfrey to move to Chicago so she could be groomed to take over “The Oprah Winfrey Show” as the host toyed with leaving to pursue more acting roles. 

Then a local anchor for the CBS affiliate in Hartford, Conn., King turned down that opportunity.  She was unwilling to uproot her family because she wanted her two children to grow up near their father, whom King divorced in 1993.

 

“Oprah said, ‘Listen, I only want to do this another year, I’ll pass the baton,’” King recalled “The kids were young and it was important to me that they had a relationship with my ex. He got to see them a lot. At the time I said, ‘I really want to go.’”

 

Even though she stuck it out in Hartford, King’s long friendship with a powerful media icon such as Winfrey has given her a rarefied existence that made her well known on the celebrity circuit even without being on television every day. She says it has not altered her worldview.

“I have some fancy friends, but I’m still a girl that likes a sale,” she said. “I don’t feel that just because you can afford to buy something doesn’t mean you have to do it. Money enhances my life, but it doesn’t change the core of who you are.”

 

Now King is famous (and wealthy) for being Gayle King. She said it’s the same Gayle King who took home disciplinary notes from school as a child. She can still recite them.

“‘Dear Mr. and Mrs. King, Gayle is a very bright little girl, but she tends to talk a lot in class and is disruptive,’” she said. “Isn’t it great that all these years later I’m still talking — trying not to be too disruptive, but still talking. I got in trouble back then. I’m not getting in trouble now. That’s pretty good. Life is good.”

‘CBS This Morning’

Where: CBS

When: 7 a.m. Monday through Friday

Rating: Not rated

stephen.battaglio@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

An earlier version of this story stated that King had confirmed details of President-elect Trump's meeting with network anchors in Trump Tower. She did not.

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