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Ooh! An ‘Early Show’ spark!

ON the air, CBS’ Maggie Rodriguez radiates niceness in a generic, morning-show-host sort of way, so it was time for a latte spit-take when she got off a mean-girl joke Thursday on “The Early Show.”

The “Early” gang stood outside its Manhattan studio, preparing to do a battery of push-ups under the tutelage of a fitness expert. Rodriguez ran down some fitness guidelines based on age and gender and suddenly paused. She turned to “The Early Show’s” dorky 41-year-old weatherman, Dave Price, and chirped: “A 60-year-old woman? That’s you, Dave!”

These days, you can’t blame the folks at CBS if their a.m. happy talk contains a few more zingers than usual. “The Early Show” has been stuck in third place ever since the program debuted in 1999, stubbornly defying the brass’ attempts to fix it. A revolving door of on-air talent and behind-the-scenes producers has tried fiddling with the show, with little or no payoff in viewership.

Earlier this month, CBS News boss Sean McManus was so eager to wash his hands of “The Early Show” executive producer Shelley Ross that his memo announcing her departure didn’t even bother with a pro-forma expression of appreciation for her efforts or make up a reason for her exit.

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Ross, in a business filled with overachieving egomaniacs -- a true exemplar being the TV news version of Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada” -- had lasted in the job all of six months.

Her replacement, Rick Kaplan, is also the designated overseer for “CBS Evening News With Katie Couric,” the storied news division’s other high-profile disappointment. CBS boss Les Moonves last week publicly admitted (again) he wasn’t thrilled with Couric’s ratings, though he raved that the anchor herself is “spectacular.” That gives Kaplan the unenviable task of trying to fix two problem programs at once. Which might explain why he, as well as McManus, declined through PR folk this column’s request for a chat last week.

All of this begs the question of why CBS, the onetime House of Murrow, now the venerable stamping ground for the still popular “60 Minutes,” can’t get its two national daily news shows in order. “The Early Show,” in particular, is near Moonves’ heart: His wife, Julie Chen, is a co-host on the program, along with Rodriguez and the ever-amiable Harry Smith.

In January, CBS finally pushed a few dozen reluctant affiliates to take the entire morning show and quit cutting away for lengthy local segments. And yet “The Early Show” still fizzles: During the February sweep, it averaged just 3.1 million total viewers, down 3% compared with the same period a year earlier, according to Nielsen Media Research. NBC’s “Today” was flat with 6.1 million, while ABC’s “Good Morning America” slipped 6% to 4.9 million.

Those figures tell much of the story. “The Early Show” is the leaky tugboat swamped alongside the gargantuan tanker that is NBC’s “Today.” Because it’s been No. 1 for 13 years, “Today” has the pick of top news “gets” and celebrities, as well as a thoroughly polished on-air team led by Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira, who replaced Couric in 2006. Even “Today’s” graphics (and “GMA’s”) make “The Early Show” look like a poor relation.

Last Monday, for example, while “The Early Show” was bogged down with listless coverage of news stories that looked assigned by “Saturday Night Live’s” Debbie Downer (tap water with traces of prescription drugs, university shootings, autism, foreclosures), the peppy “Today” team busted an exclusive with Casey Knowles, the girl in Hillary Clinton’s “3 a.m.” ad (the program teased the interview at least four times in 50 minutes) and followed up with sit-downs with Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson and Jim Carrey. “Today” even had a live shot of Jessica Simpson with troops in Kuwait.

“There’s some significance to being able to tell people you’ll be watched by more people” than on rivals, “Today” executive producer Jim Bell told me, with unchecked understatement.

“Today” is such a cash machine for NBC that the program recently stretched to an unprecedented fourth hour, with reports that the network is talking to Kathie Lee Gifford about coming in as a late-inning relief pitcher. (Bell confirmed the talks but said there was no deal.)

There was a time, not so long ago, when the morning-show wars were actually fun. Back in 2000, when “GMA” hosted a live concert in New York’s Bryant Park, the pranksters at NBC dispatched a helicopter to buzz over the crowd, drowning out singer Dionne Warwick.

Ross, who was running “GMA” at the time, went bananas, accusing “Today’s” then-boss Jeff Zucker of trying to upstage her event by having Sting play at Rockefeller Center, a few blocks away. Zucker now runs NBC Universal and is a favorite of General Electric chief Jeffrey Immelt, proof of how far success in morning TV can carry you.

Ross, for the moment, isn’t running anything, not even her mouth. (Imagine your columnist’s letdown when he reached her at her New York home and she didn’t thunder, threaten or filibuster, instead declining any comment on her recent travails, polite as a Sunday-school teacher.)

Steve Friedman, a TV news vet who directly preceded Ross at “The Early Show,” says CBS has a shot at making the show competitive because during the last few years the network has finally begun taking the time period seriously (remember, for years CBS’ idea of morning programming was “Captain Kangaroo”). But he conceded that morning ratings move at a glacial pace.

After closely watching some recent episodes of “The Early Show,” I’m less upbeat about the chances for the program, at least in its current incarnation. There just isn’t any reason to tune in when NBC and ABC are doing the same thing so much better. The war is for now basically over; NBC carried the day. Unless CBS wants to drag its knuckles in third place forever, the bosses are going to have to undergo another format change. And if they’re willing to unleash Rodriguez, she could well be the answer to their problems.

Rodriguez, who replaced Hannah Storm on “The Early Show” in January, will never be the unattainable golden girl, like “GMA’s” Diane Sawyer. After the Eliot Spitzer scandal broke last week, Sawyer, her blond mane back-lighted exquisitely as usual, delivered a magnificent voice-over for a montage of long-suffering politico wives, “that gallery of stoic but suffering women who have stood alongside reeling husbands back over the years.” She made a cheesy tabloid sidebar sound like Auden poetry. That’s talent!

Rodriguez, by comparison, hits an awkward pitch when going for the mawkish. Interviewing 12-year-old writer Shea Megale, who has a condition known as spinal muscular atrophy, she gushed, “So many of us who are older can’t muster that kind of maturity and optimism. Where does that come from?”

But the real Rodriguez is, we suspect, closer to the wicked wit who enjoys razzing the weather guy for being an out-of-shape wimp. If CBS execs had any sense, they’d see that Rodriguez is a potential stand-in for that reliable watcher of morning shows, the Angry Woman. They need to set her loose and build the program around her. It couldn’t be much worse than what they’re doing now.

Did we mention that Rodriguez did 20 push-ups? On camera? In a suit?

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scott.collins@latimes.com

Times staff writer Matea Gold contributed to this report.

Channel Island runs Mondays in Calendar.


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