Susan Winston, the former executive producer of ABC's "Good Morning America" whom CBS News hired to revamp its troubled "CBS Morning News," said Monday that she opposes CBS' plans to take the program away from the news division in January.
Although she will stay with the program at least until her contract ends in October, "I am at odds with the decision to remove the program from news," said Winston, hired on May 5 to come up with a plan to make the program a ratings contender.
Shortly before she spoke, Faith Daniels and Bruce Morton were named as temporary replacements for "Morning News" anchors Forrest Sawyer and Maria Shriver, who next week will leave the program they began anchoring only last August.
Next January, the usually third-in-ratings, often-revamped program that CBS News has run for 23 years will be succeeded by yet another CBS morning entry offering new faces, a new look and undoubtedly a new title.
But the new entry will be developed and produced by a new unit--part of neither CBS News nor CBS Entertainment--created in the CBS Broadcast Group. The unit will report to Van Gordon Sauter, in his capacity as an executive vice president of the Broadcast Group. Sauter also is president of CBS News.
Sauter, in announcing the change in a memo to his staff on Friday, did not outline how the new program would look when it premieres in January.
However, he said that he and other CBS executives, after weeks of discussions, had "decided to eliminate the traditional boundaries" between news and entertainment on a morning program "that experience after experience have convinced us are too restrictive."
The change was seen as an effort to appease unhappy CBS affiliates, who have been pressuring their network to come up with a real contender to NBC's currently front-running "Today" show and ABC's "Good Morning America."
According to the latest A. C. Nielsen Co. estimates covering July 1-18, "Today" has a 4.5 ratings average and "Good Morning America" a 4.2, while the "CBS Morning News" is a distant third, averaging a 3.1. Each rating point represents 859,000 homes.
CBS affiliates last November informally asked CBS--whose programs division began the network's morning effort in 1954--to let the network's entertainment division try to come up with a program that would attract a larger audience than the "CBS Morning News" has had.
However, CBS News chief Sauter emphasized in a Friday interview that "the entertainment division never attempted to take this time period, and it's erroneous to say that they did. This was not a contest between news and entertainment."
(Before CBS News took over the morning chores, CBS' programs division had had no luck, either, in trying to fight NBC's "Today." Its efforts ranged from a news-entertainment package hosted by Walter Cronkite to a short-lived variety program starring singer Jimmy Dean.)
When CBS' new plan was announced Friday, Phil Jones, head of the CBS affiliates' advisory board, praised it as "a reasonable decision" that affiliates would like. He also said he hoped that the new morning-show production unit would create a show that CBS would stick with for at least two years.
And, said Jones, vice president of KCTV-TV in Kansas City, Mo., he hoped it would mean an end to the "Morning News" frequent anchor-team changes. There have been seven since Hughes Rudd and Sally Quinn worked on the program in 1973.
"We've been changing people like shirts," he said jokingly.
Last May the fiesty Winston told the CBS affiliates' annual convention in Los Angeles that she had been hired to get ratings, would do everything possible to achieve that and asked for a chance to come up with a competitive morning show.
She drew heavy applause when, after asserting that morning programs had become hackneyed clones of each other, she said that "it's about time that somebody came up with a new idea. My job is to make sure that the somebody who does is CBS."
She promised to report back to the affiliates on July 15, a date that subsequently was changed to July 31. CBS now says it will tell its affiliates more about its new morning-show unit and its plans for a new broadcast later this year.
"This is great news for NBC and ABC," said "Today" executive producer Steve Friedman on Monday. "It's going to take them (CBS) five months to just get a new show on, and they're probably going to lose some of their audience in the meantime.
"It's hard to get that audience back," added Friedman, whose "Today" will become the only network morning program produced by a network news division. ABC's program is produced by ABC Entertainment.
Among other things, Winston had proposed a "multi-anchor" format for a new morning program that would originate from locales other than New York and tentatively was called "Across America." She reportedly had fierce battles with CBS brass, who felt that her proposals were far too costly.
In a phone interview from New York, she declined to discuss that, but said she always had felt that regardless of format, any new CBS morning show should stay in the news division to capitalize on "the strong talent" in CBS News.
When she learned last week that the news division would not produce the new program, she added, she felt "it was like playing a game of football and all of a sudden you're told to play cricket."
She declined to say if she'll stay with CBS News after her contract ends. But she said that she would give the "CBS Morning News"--which will continue in its present format until the end of the year--"my best effort, 100%, which is the only way I know to work."