LOS ANGELES _ Despite the talk of big change and redirection, "CBS This Morning" remains, essentially, a morning show, which means a softer, pre-packaged presentation of select national news broken up by local reporting, including traffic and weather, with segments on health and an inevitable emphasis on celebrity culture. Still, with Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Erica Hill all but physically embodying the various aspects of a newsmagazine, the network has reexamined the genre in a serious way, and that alone makes it worth watching for at least a while.
Full disclosure: Although it may be a case of professional heresy, I am not a huge fan of the morning show in any format, preferring to begin my day with the written word, spread out in many sections, and blessed silence, over my kitchen table.
That said, I was pleasantly surprised by CBS' attempt to finally gain a foothold in the first-light ratings with the promise to "put the news back in the morning news." While they didn't quite do that _ the first half of the show simply recapped the stories of the week, including the Republican primary race, the new book on the Obamas and a segment on fraudulent stem cell treatments that ran on the network's "60 Minutes" the night before _ there was at least an attempt to address bigger issues before moving to the more traditional morning topics: the former Kate Middleton's 30th birthday, Beyonce's baby girl.
CBS gave the show a big new set, which, with its exposed brick and wall of flat screens, looked a bit like the loft of a monied blogger, and a jazzy pop soundtrack. But it was the sight of Charlie Rose that went furthest in establishing a break from early morning convention. With his drooping lids and lugubrious tones, Rose is a striking contrast to the preternatural perkiness so often required of (and lampooned in) morning hosts. He is not naturally effervescent and seldom smiles, and one doesn't just assume, one simply knows that, unlike, say, Matt Lauer, he always wears socks.
Much more anchor than host, he took on the "news" stories, grilling Newt Gingrich in a taped interview (the "Today" show, meanwhile, had Gingrich live), but he spent more time chatting with CBS correspondents Norah O'Donnell, Bob Schieffer and Scott Pelley about the Obama book, the New Hampshire primary and stem cell research.
That left Gayle King and Erica Hill with the feature bits, an unfortunately traditional division of labor _ and now for the "women's pages"! _ that we can only hope will not continue. Although Rose joined in on the interview of Julianna Margulies, star of CBS' "The Good Wife," it was King and Hill who had to get through the more predictable soft stories on Middleton, now Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (oh, look, pictures of Princess Di!), Beyonce and the actress suing IMDB for revealing her true age. In this they were rather mysteriously aided by singer Melissa Ethridge, there to offer insights on being a woman, a mother and famous. While it is always nice to see Etheridge, surely we can think of a better use for her.
Still, the three all seemed comfortable and at ease with each other, although chattiness was definitely not the order of the day. King made a few attempts at levity with a joke about a royal watcher's fur hat _ "Is that a possum on her head?" _ and offered what could only be hard-earned wisdom _ "Never good to upstage the queen" _ but for the most part the tone was straight-backed and highly professional, a clear challenge to the intimate and often giddy atmosphere at "Today." Although one final segment revolved around Dick Van Dyke being a former morning host for CBS, there was nothing goofy about this show. "This is an important year for news," Rose said by way of farewell, "and we will be there covering it because we have the resources of CBS news to do it."
And even though one of those resources appeared to have spent hours standing outside Buckingham Palace, where nothing was happening, simply to lend local color to an overlong report on the young royals, he appeared to be quite sincere and very serious.
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