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CBS News overhauls its morning show

by David Bauder
| December 2, 2010 8:00 PM

NEW YORK - CBS News abruptly gave "The Early Show" a complete makeover in an attempt to freshen the show, replacing co-hosts Harry Smith and Maggie Rodriguez with its current Saturday anchor team of Chris Wragge and Erica Hill.

The network is also replacing weather forecaster Dave Price with Marysol Castro, formerly of ABC's "Good Morning America" weekend edition, and adding Jeff Glor as the regular news reader.

The new team will start Jan. 3.

There had been little inkling that alterations were afoot, although the show had changed its executive producer, David Friedman, within the past year. Friedman said he believed the new team had the right energy and chemistry to embark on another effort at lifting the show out of third place in the network morning news ratings.

"It's less about what we weren't getting and less about a generational change or a different direction," Friedman said. "We just literally think this is the right team going forward."

"The Early Show" has consistently ranked behind the morning champ, NBC's "Today" show, and ABC's "Good Morning America." The week before Thanksgiving was typical. "Today" averaged 5.6 million viewers each day, "GMA" had 4.6 million and "The Early Show" had 2.9 million, the Nielsen Co. said.

CBS News President Sean McManus said he won't be expecting any immediate ratings changes in a time where "Today" hasn't lost a single week in nearly 15 years. But he said he believed the new team will help the show grow.

"This group, I think, will work very well together," McManus said. "I think the chemistry will be very good."

"We just felt the timing was right to start planning for the future," he said.

Smith had the longest tenure on "The Early Show." He was the sole survivor from 2002 when CBS installed a four-anchor team that included Smith, Hannah Storm, Julie Chen and Rene Syler. Chen still contributes occasional reports to the show; the others have left CBS News.

Smith also hosted a previous CBS morning show from 1987 to 1996. CBS said he'll stay at the network as a news reporter and primary substitute at the "CBS Evening News," ''Face the Nation" and "Sunday Morning."

Alerted that changes were coming, Smith said he took a "long walk on a cold golf course" Sunday and reflected on doing the CBS morning show for 17 of the last 25 years. "To be honest, I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunities I've had," he said, confirming that he plans to stay at CBS.

"I have given them everything I can possibly give," said Smith, 59. "I wish the people who follow nothing but the best. God love 'em, I hope they can move the (ratings) needle more."

Wragge worked in sports, including a stint as a sideline reporter at events for NBC, until he made the jump to news in 2006. Beside his weekend job at CBS, he had been anchoring local news broadcasts at the network's New York affiliate, a job he'll give up to go national.

Hill, who came to CBS from CNN, briefly filled in for Rodriguez last year when Rodriguez was on maternity leave. She's the only holdover from the current daily program, although in a different role. Currently, she reads the newscasts.

Wragge and Hill's growth as a team has been evident on Saturday mornings, and they've proven adept at shifting between hard news and lighter fare, McManus said.

"They're uniquely suited to each other and to the morning show genre," he said.

Friedman said it's an advantage for CBS that its regular viewers know each of the new personalities, except for weather forecaster Castro.

"You're not introducing somebody to the morning genre that has never been in the morning genre," he said. "That is a little bit tougher." That's likely a reference to the other recent morning transition, where George Stephanopoulos replaced Diane Sawyer as a co-host at "Good Morning America" late last year.

"It's hard to fault CBS for looking to shake things up," said David Bianculli, a veteran television critic and now a media professor at Rowan University in New Jersey. "I have a lot of respect for Harry Smith, but for a long time, this has not been working on a daily basis."

The suddenness of the "bloodbath" was surprising, Bianculli said.

"Anything that's done this quickly smells of desperation," he said.

CBS News said it is discussing future roles at the network with Rodriquez and Price. Price has filmed human interest reports along with doing the weather on "The Early Show." Earlier this month, producers dropped him off in Alaska with only $50 and a phone and challenged him to earn his way back to New York City.