Charlie Rose, Gayle King, and Erica Hill seem like nice enough people, but their new CBS This Morning show is, sadly, doomed to failure. There’s nothing they, nor anyone else, can do about it. CBS will never rule the a.m. airwaves, and it all has to do with a fateful morning in fall of 1981; September 28, to be exact.
That was the day millions of unsuspecting preschool children sat down in front of their family TVs to watch Captain Kangaroo…and instead saw the dour face of Bob Schieffer, hosting the new CBS morning show. The Captain, after 30 years of hour-long programs, was cut back to a half-hour to make way for more news, the beginning of a two-year process that would ultimately end with CBS shoving Captain Kangaroo out the Treasure House door.
Warm-eyed, gentle-voiced Bob Keeshan never spoke ill of CBS, as far as I know. After all, the network had stuck by his marshmallow-soft brand of children’s entertainment all the way through the turbulent 60s and 70s, when the rest of kid TV swirled down a drain of cheap Hanna-Barbera cartoons and lightning-edited “educational” shows that accomplished little more than reducing toddlers’ attention spans to just under seven seconds.
Through it all, there was The Captain, sitting in a rocking chair, reading books, petting baby sheep, engaging in gentle wordplay with Mr. Moose and Grandfather Clock. Keeshan endured from being a young man in 1955, portraying an old sea salt, to an old man in 1984, trying to remain both relevant and true to himself. He succeeded to a wondrous degree.
True, the CBS news shows that displaced The Captain over the years could attract more grown-up advertising—laundry detergent and department stores and such. But from the start, those ad sales were hard to come by despite the best efforts of Shieffer and his successors—among them Diane Sawyer, Bll Curtis, Charles Osgood, Jane Wallace, Meredith Viera, Phyllis George, Forrest Sawyer, Bruce Morton, Faith Daniels, Mariette Hartley, Rolland Smith, Bob Saget, and Bryant Gumbel. Things got so bad that The CBS Early Show actually had me on not once, but twice—I sat down to talk Movies For Grownups with Harry Smith in 2006 and Julie Chen in 2008 (she perched herself on a book, I noticed). Do me a favor and click on this link to watch me and Harry; somewhere in the bowels of CBSnews.com, it’ll drive someone crazy.
So desperate did the CBS morning news shows become for advertisers in the early 1980s that, just before I left the house for work one day, I heard these words come from the TV: “The CBS Morning News. Brought to you by…The National Enquirer.” Edward R. Murrow, I’m pretty sure, started chain smoking in his grave at that point.
No, despite its reputation as TV’s premiere broadcast news producer, a legacy that reaches way back to Robert Trout’s live coverage of D-Day, CBS will never, ever claim primacy on morning television.
Call it the Curse of the Captain. Although as we all know, Captain Kangaroo would never, ever curse.