NEW YORK - CBS News is looking to make its perennially last-place morning program more competitive in the ratings by abandoning the format that allows stations to air mostly local news between 7 and 8 a.m.
The new format and other "significant changes" on "The Early Show," will debut Jan. 1, 2008, CBS News President Sean McManus said.
NBC'S "Today" and ABC's "Good Morning America" both feature national news and segments for most of their program, and two five-minute inserts for local news during the 7 a.m. hour. For most of the country that watches "The Early Show," the format is the same.
But that relationship is flipped at 43 stations covering 20 percent of the CBS audience. Two brief national inserts air during the 7 a.m. hour (the first at 7:18) with "The Early Show" only being seen for an hour at 8 a.m.
"It's hard to get any kind of national image for the program with the format the way it is," McManus told The Associated Press.
The format also frustrates producers and affects the 80 percent of the country that uses the full program. They say there is little flexibility to let a strong interview run longer, or cut a bad one short, under rules that require commercials just before those breaks.
"It's almost impossible to explain to any rational person," said Steve Friedman, the show's executive producer.
"The Early Show" is a distant third in the ratings, as all CBS morning news shows have been for decades. But the network senses vulnerability in its rivals. "The Early Show" ratings this year are up 1 percent, while "Today" is down 8 percent and "GMA" down 3 percent in the same period, according to Nielsen Media Research.
While "Today" routinely doubles "The Early Show" audience, the NBC powerhouse recorded its smallest average audience last week in 11 years.
The change, however, will be a hardship for many of the affiliates that use the blended format, which is done in such cities as Baltimore and Las Vegas. The local news there gets higher ratings than any national CBS morning show has ever received; the format was devised a decade ago to help these stations earn more money.
Some affiliates are upset that CBS News, a division of CBS Corp., announced this change without negotiating a deal to soften the financial blow, said Scott Blumenthal, chairman of the CBS affiliate board and an executive at Lin Television, which owns seven CBS stations.
"I would hope that CBS sees the value of keeping these relationships strong," he said.
Besides the financial considerations, the affiliates are still not clear what the new format will be, he said. It's also not clear how many - if any - of the affiliates will be able to resist if it doesn't want the new format.
McManus said CBS would work with the affected affiliates to give them more commercial revenue. "For most stations, this will be a better deal," he said.
For Friedman, the change can't come soon enough.
"It's really no way to do a show," he said.