Times Staff Writer

Phyllis George, the former CBS Sports personality, was scheduled to begin life anew today as co-anchor with Bill Kurtis on "The CBS Morning News." But Steve Friedman said he didn't plan to drop everything he's doing just to welcome her.

It's understandable. Friedman is executive producer of NBC's "Today" show. His mind is more on how to put his show back where it used to be, No. 1 in the reveille ratings. The leader still is ABC's "Good Morning America," but "Today" is closing in fast.

With NBC now second in prime-time ratings and ABC third, optimism abounds at NBC. Of the executives there, producer Friedman abounds perhaps the most.

He ventures that this is the year his show, co-anchored by Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley, finally will retake the lead in the morning program wars: "If NBC continues to stay strong and ABC stays weak, I think 1985 is our year."

But the normally brash producer declined to forecast the month in which victory will occur. "I think people who make those predictions are stupid," he explained.

He spoke by phone from New York last week while planning a six-minute collection of "highlights, lowlights and medium lights" to salute the birthday of "Today"--which dawned 33 years ago this morning, high on hopes and low on viewers.

Many things were tried in those early days to lure an audience. They even brought in J. Fred Muggs, chimpanzee by trade. He stayed four years before the show dropped him, with NBC insisting that he'd left to "extend his personal horizons."

By then, "Today" was solidly established, with opportunities for further monkey business removed in the late '50s, when then-NBC President Robert E. Kintner moved the program to the province of then-NBC News President William R. McAndrew.

In 1954, what now is "The CBS Morning News" (now a distant third in the national Nielsens) arrived on the airwaves. ABC's "Good Morning America" joined the dawn patrol in 1975. But "Today" kept winning.

However, its long reign ended nearly three years ago, when "Today" yielded the lead to ABC's bouncy, faster-paced "Good Morning." (Unlike its rivals, ABC's show is run by the network's entertainment division, not its news division.)

In the summer of 1983, "Today" even briefly slumped to third behind "The CBS Morning News." Friedman remained outwardly optimistic back then. But was it not the kind of optimism of, say, the captain of the Titanic announcing that the ship was only pausing to take on ice?

"Well, no," he insisted. "When you do these programs, you're part of an overall whole. And at that time NBC's fortunes were at a very low ebb. I expected that when they got better we'd get better (ratings), and that's happened."

Audience estimates provided by the A. C. Nielsen Co. tend to agree. The company's most recent published season-to-date ratings averages, ending Dec. 23, show "Today" getting 21% of the audience in its time period, just 2% less than ABC's effort.

CBS' program is firmly in third in those averages, attracting 16% of the audience. But the industry will be keenly watching to see if Phyllis George, who succeeds Diane Sawyer on "The CBS Morning News," does anything to help boost the show's audience.

(So far, her installation on the program has drawn only grumbles from news traditionalists who believe a news show should only be co-anchored by those who've covered fires, floods, pestilence, politicians and generally serious matters. George has not done this.)

Friedman attributes the improved ratings of "Today" to various things, a major thing being a harder approach to breaking news and not giving the same emphasis to less vital matters, like celebrity interviews and such.

"I think we had a lot of problems in the beginning in that everything looked the same and was treated the same--four minutes and you moved on," said the producer, who has been at the helm of "Today" for five years.

"I think we've also gotten away from doing things that were too reactive, like, 'When it happens on Monday, get it on by Wednesday.' "

The idea now is to anticipate, not just react, in important news matters, he said. "Before we started this thing, I think the show should've been called 'Yesterday.' So we've been trying to change the focus . . . trying to change it from a passive show to a more active show."

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