Wake-up call: Time for CBS 2 to rise in the morning

The prospect of Oprah Winfrey’s best friend, Gayle King, teaming up with Charlie Rose to rescue The Early Show on CBS may be just what it takes to rouse WBBM-Channel 2’s local morning newscast from its self-induced stupor.

CBS is expected to announce plans Tuesday to shake up its perennially low-rated morning show by launching a new format around King and Rose early next year. In what the New York Times called “a complete makeover,” the new program will “emphasize hard news and use a conversational approach like Morning Joe on MSNBC and The View on ABC.”

The network move is likely to increase pressure on Chicago bosses to fix their CBS 2 Morning News, which has been without a permanent anchor team since July and continues to run dead last in the ratings. In the November Nielsens so far, the show’s 6-to-7am hour finishes fifth in a five-way race with a 0.8 household rating, and a dismal 0.3 rating among viewers between the ages of 25 and 54.

CBS 2 general manager Bruno Cohen and news director Jeff Kiernan have shown no urgency to make their 4:30-to-7am weekday news block more competitive since Steve Bartelstein was released from his contract after only 10 months last July. Veteran reporter and weekend news anchor Jim Williams has been filling in alongside co-anchor Susan Carlson, although Williams has never expressed interest in securing the role permanently.

Repeated efforts to pin down Cohen and Kiernan on their plans for the show — or even on a time frame for a decision — have been met with “no comments” from a CBS 2 spokeswoman.

One reason for the station’s reluctance to move more quickly may be the fiasco that ensued when Cohen and Kiernan debuted Monsters and Money in the Morning, a four-headed gabfest starring Mike North, Dan Jiggetts, Terry Savage and Mike Hegedus, as a low-budget alternative to traditional local morning news shows. When the show failed to gain traction in the ratings, Cohen and Kiernan’s bosses forced them to pull the plug after seven months and return to more standard fare in August 2010.

“From a business perspective it’s important that we grow in the morning because there’s dollars available in the morning that we can’t really tap unless we’re more competitive,” Cohen told me in an interview last March. “I like what we’re doing in the morning in this format, and the audience seems to be accepting it more quickly than I had anticipated. On a percentage basis, we’re doubling and in certain cases tripling the number. But it was from an extraordinarily small base, so I don’t want to make more of it than there is.”

While it’s true that CBS 2’s morning newscast is the only one in the market to show an increase over last November — up 33 percent for the month so far — it remains a distant also-ran, drawing fewer than 28,000 households during the 6am hour. That’s even less than Fox-owned WFLD-Channel 32’s dead-on-arrival Good Day Chicago.

But with CBS gambling on King and Rose to increase viewer sampling, it only makes sense for the network’s Chicago station to capitalize on the attention and get going in the morning. They’ve been hitting the snooze button long enough.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)