There are two layers of bulletproof glass separating Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel from the crowds that gather outside the new, $15 million TV studio for the Today show, but I still think the coanchors deserve an award for bravery. After all, they have to keep their backs to the people out on the street, a mixture of tourists, media junkies, and loonies who press their faces to the windows and wave wildly any time they see the red light of a camera pointed in their direction. Were I a Today show host, I’d want to be able to keep an eye on this seething Day of the Locust swarm at all times.
As I write, nothing scary has happened — other than an accident involving a lighting technician — since June 20, when the Today show opened its self-described ”window on the world” to the hordes gathered at 49th Street and Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan. Well, it was a bit frightening to see people sucking up for camera time by brandishing pro-NBC signs like the one that read ”Nice Broadcasting Company.” I sort of liked the animal rights sympathizer who held up a cranky ”No Lobster Today” sign — a reference to a recent Today cooking segment in which a luckless live crustacean was literally torn limb from limb.
As a publicity stunt, the Today show move is a success — anything that induces me to watch two full hours of these morning news-and-entertainment shows is doing something right. Yet I realize that this isn’t the way most people consume the Today show and its competitors, ratings-leader since 1990 Good Morning America and bottom-dweller CBS This Morning. Most ordinary viewers probably catch these shows in the chunks they’re broken into, glomming a little news, a little weather, and a little chatter while tying their shoes and burning the toast.
But so far, the change of venue has made Today’s already lightweight interview segments that much easier to ignore, with the distraction of people making goo-goo eyes behind Gumbel or Couric as one of them tries to conduct a conversation with a guest. Perhaps executive producer Steve Friedman thought this was the only way to get some animated movement in the frame when there’s a close-up on Gumbel — what does it take to get this guy to register an emotion these days?
Don’t get me wrong: Gumbel is my favorite morning-show host precisely because he resists so much of the banal, grinning banter that makes these programs so excruciating to watch for more than 10 minutes. Still, not having watched Gumbel in a while, I was amazed at how minimalist his approach has become; if he can ask a question without moving a muscle, including the ones in his mouth, he’ll do it.
He is thus the perfect contrast to the woman David Letterman recently introduced as ”news spitfire Katie Couric.” Couric is just as bright-eyed and eager-beaver as ever. But maybe because, as she told Letterman, she’s sick of being called ”perky,” Couric has reined in her giggles and become a refreshingly straightforward broadcaster. One who, however, like all her morning colleagues, could use some reportorial aggressiveness. On the same morning, for example, that The New York Times ran a front-page piece saying that fashion designer Donna Karan’s empire was experiencing financial shakiness, Couric had an onscreen chat with Karan that barely alluded to this situation.
That’s the problem with this whole genre, of course. None of the morning hosts — with the occasional exception of Gumbel — can afford to be a probing, adversarial journalist during the news segments, because they have to preserve their warm ‘n’ fuzzy images for the softball entertainment segments. This built-in constraint has steadily eroded the personalities of Harry Smith and Paula Zahn on CBS This Morning, and it has slowly but steadily transformed GMA’s Joan Lunden into an intelligent woman stifled by the triteness on her TelePrompTer. As for her partner, Charlie Gibson, well, the closest he’s come to feistiness recently was when he became gratuitously cranky with Lunden about Take Our Daughters to Work Day. I gather old Charlie saw the whole thing as some kinda pernicious feminist plot to bring capitalism to a halt.
So far, the high point of Today’s new-studio era was an ad-lib provided by movie critic Gene Shalit, who happened to be present when former New York City mayor Ed Koch popped in to give the hosts bagels, plug a forthcoming book, and generally make a pushy boor of himself. ”My office is just a block away!” exclaimed Koch. ”Go to it!” Shalit said. A little more bluntness like that, and I might be able to put up with all those gawkers on the street in search of airtime. Today: B