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Jeff Simon: An open letter to CBS News' big shots

Jeff Simon

An open letter to Susan Zirinsky, president of CBS News:

Let me offer you some congratulations from out here in what Norah O'Donnell rather unfortunately called (crediting Gayle King with the phrase) "the cheap seats." It seems to me you deserve a hearty back-pat for your first official shakeup this week that, all in all, seemed pretty smart to me.

I know you've been at CBS News for decades, but I first became aware of your name a couple years ago when, by chance, I happened upon a Saturday TV show I'd never really watched before -- the long-running "48 Hours." Your name was prominent in the closing credits. The reason I made a point of checking the credits out is that I marveled, as I watched, at how compelling it was for a true crime show so obviously produced on the cheap.

True crime isn't exactly the most elevated or demographically desirable program out here in the TV audience. Nor is it the most consequential of subjects. But when it's well-done, most of us are seeing a closeup view of life that, in some ways, resembles our own, but in all the important ways is so different. Great television, it wasn't. Compulsively watchable, it was.

So if you don't mind a few comments and modest proposals from out here where we can't afford the "expensive seats," I'd like to toss out a few tentative observations about your canny new game of musical chairs at CBS News.

* CBS Morning News. Making King the upcoming center of the show was a good move. Her new desk mates to come are Anthony Mason -- perhaps the only financial reporter extant who doubles as a pop music correspondent -- and Tony Dokupul. Two things are significant about King: She is at 64, a veteran's veteran. When she talks, people tend to listen. More importantly, she is Oprah Winfrey's best friend since the mid-'70s, when Oprah began her ascent into her stature as the most influential talk show host ever. While King hovered somewhere around No. 1 in Oprah's brain trust, Oprah's influence expanded to the point where it became decisive in introducing future President Barack Obama.

King can sometimes slip into a wee bit too much majesty for all tastes ("cheap seats," indeed) but, as she proved in that remarkable interview with embattled R&B singer R. Kelly, she has "gravitas" to burn. She has it at the same time as she has a real feel for the pop parade in passing. She's the right person with the right job when left to her own devices.

She'll need to be for one simple reason: CBS Morning News will never -- ever -- overtake the ratings of "The Today Show," and "Good Morning, America." What with their histories of cooking segments and throwaway interviews, they are easy resting places for the eyes and brains that don't yet want to function fully. Their desks are full of people whose likability goes through the roof at breakfast time. That just doesn't describe CBS News people.

What CBS can do in the morning is provide a lot of viral fodder to be visited all day. That's why I have an off-the-wall suggestion for whatever it may be worth (including nothing) in two words: Katie Couric. All my searching couldn't find an affiliation for Couric at the moment -- not since Yahoo! and then ABC. Make her a regular weekly fixture on the show -- one weekly spot to do whatever she and you agree on. At the least, she could exercise her unique ability to do killer interviews. A little bit of weekly Katie in the morning would signify CBS Morning News' desire to be different and competitive. Of course, she'd have to adjust her financial needs accordingly, but hey, we can dream can't we?

* CBS Evening News. The smartest of all your moves was to make O'Donnell -- a former White House correspondent -- the CBS Evening News anchor moved over from the morning news. Unfortunately, the specter of Uncle Walter Cronkite has hopelessly distorted what is possible for newbies in the 21st century. There will never be another Cronkite. O'Donnell, though, is brisk and good -- good enough for you to also award the traditional "managing editor" title to her anchor chair during a presidential election year. Smartest of all in an election year was moving the nightly news to Washington.

What the Trump years have proved on opposite sides of the divide is how appealing to so many people is outrage on both sides of the political spectrum. Les Moonves, the former chief executive at CBS who resigned following allegations of sexual abuse, even had the awful foolishness to admit that however bad President Donald Trump might be for America, he loved that he was so good for CBS News viewership. Stephen Colbert, for instance, suddenly began to dominate late-night viewership when he turned his opening monologues into daily, up-to-the-minute exercises in Trump-bashing.

* 60 Minutes. John Dickerson -- of late on the CBS Morning News -- is TV news aristocracy. His mother, Nancy Dickerson, was a primal figure in TV news. Pulling him off the morning show and putting him on powerhouse "60 Minutes" to do political coverage is brilliant. In addition to all that he knows (how to write, among other things), his manner and his friendliness and inculcation of viewer comfort is the exact opposite of Scott Pelley's largely humorless frost. Dickerson is a new era Ed Bradley waiting to be born on "60 Minutes."

* The bad news. There's always some. The one major misfortune in your shakeup is felt particularly by a lot of us living in Western New York. That is the removal of Tonawanda's Jeff Glor from the CBS Evening News anchor chair.

Jeff Glor, not given much chance as anchor, now has tough decision to make

His response to his fate at the end of Monday's edition of the evening news was emblematically admirable. "I'd like to think," he said, "we're all guided by something bigger than one moment or one broadcast."

You didn't have to be a genius to suspect it might be coming from the minute he took over from Pelley. Glor is likable on camera under any and all circumstances. What he doesn't have is what TV critics have always called "gravitas." Gravity was the thing that made Cronkite Cronkite, John Chancellor John Chancellor, Peter Jennings Peter Jennings and Chet Huntley Chet Huntley (while Brinkley had the pixie twinkle covered).

It is a foolish thing to expect in our new century where demographic preferences, tragically, make it antithetical to so many perceived needs.

Glor has always reminded me of a role player in the first generation of TV news people -- all purpose fellows like Charles Collingwood, Bob Schieffer, Roger Mudd: attractive, believable communicators who believed that all one's heft on the air shouldn't ever resemble throwing your weight around.

Finding a proper place for Glor is going to be a test of your creativity, Ms. Zirinsky, but then anyone who could make the new 21st century version of "48 Hours" breezily watchable ought to be able to come up with something.

How about this? Now that New York City will be abandoned as the home of the the nightly news, Jeff Glor as the CBS News New York correspondent? Just a thought, you know?

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