SUPPORTING GREAT TELEVISION

After Morning, Breakfast Time TV News Got Cornier, Flakier

In Commentaries on December 5, 2010 at 5:30 pm

A 1987 sketch of “Morning Program” hosts Mariette Hartley and Rolland Smith. (Artist unknown; courtesy TV Guide)

Every time CBS overhauls The Early Show – as it did this week, for the third time in eight years – I’m reminded of the network’s most spectacular a.m. news fiasco, The Morning Program.

What’s that, you say?

You don’t remember The Morning Program?

Well pull up a chair, child, and let me tell you about the most influential – and shortest-lived – morning show of our time.

The Morning Program debuted on January 12, 1987 and aired weekdays at 7:30; the 90-minute show lasted just 11 months, broadcasting its final show on the day after Thanksgiving.

Mariette Hartley, an actress best known for pitching Polaroid cameras alongside James Garner in the 1970s, co-hosted the show with Rolland Smith, previously a local anchor in New York.

The Morning Program caused a sensation when it debuted because it was so different from CBS’s competition – then as now, NBC’s Today and ABC’s Good Morning America.

Those shows mixed hard news with lifestyle reports and human-interest stories but The Morning Program only did soft stuff.

Regular features included Teachers Who Count and American Doers, advice segments such as Sensible Shopper and Living Better and even video personal ads, along with follow-up reports on the dates.

The show was also heavy on interviews with celebrities and CBS’s prime time stars (Sophia Loren and Cagney & Lacey themselves, Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly, showed up on the premiere.)

CBS broadcast the show live before a studio audience, giving Hartley and Smith lots of opportunities to interact with the tourist-off-the-street; The Morning Program also featured a daily standup comedy routine with a pre-Full House Bob Saget.

Because what isn’t funny at 7:30 in the morning?

Critics hated the whole thing; Tom Shales of the Washington Post memorably wrote that watching The Morning Program’s debut “was like waking up and finding the house overrun with last night’s party guests, most of them stewed to the gills and gabby as all get-out.”

It turns out this was a sign of things to come, because now every network morning show looks like The Morning Program.

Today may not play matchmaker with video personals (so ’80s!), but it does throw its share of weddings.

Good Morning America may not have Sensible Shopper and Living Better, but it does offer Savings Makeover and On Call health reports.

And while none of the morning shows offer standup comedy, they do have those outdoor concert series, as well as interviews galore with their respective networks’ prime time stars.

The hosts of each morning show also rub elbows with the tourists who show up each morning outside their Manhattan studios each morning – just as Hartley and Smith did with their audience, two decades ago.

One notable difference: CBS’s entertainment division produced The Morning Program to shield the news department – which was still a symbol of the network’s prestige at the time – from the criticism that surely would have arisen if the House That Murrow Built had been tasked with producing a fuzzy-wuzzy morning new show.

Quaint, huh?

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