Led by NC native Charlie Rose, CBS makes gains in the morning

CBS This morning co-host Norah O'Donnell , left, Charlie Rose and Gayle King. The shows newsier focus has helped the team inprove ratings.
CBS This morning co-host Norah O'Donnell , left, Charlie Rose and Gayle King. The shows newsier focus has helped the team inprove ratings. CBS NEWS

It’s shortly after their two-hour show, “CBS This Morning” has wrapped, and, even over the phone, Gayle King, Norah O’Donnell and Henderson native and Duke University graduate Charlie Rose exude the buzzy energy that comes when your adrenaline is pumping.

And why shouldn’t they be pumped? For years, CBS’s morning show has been a bit of a non-starter, running through hosts and formats trying to find the right combination to compete with ABC’s “Good Morning America” and NBC’s “Today.”

Finally, somebody at the network had an idea to do something different: in January 2012, CBS set out to create a morning program that colloquially might be described as being for grown folks. It’s a broadcast that typically saves the lighter stuff for after 8 a.m. and even then serves up pop culture stories or interviews with some depth.

The new formula seems to be working. In national ratings released June 20, the show posted double-digit year-to-year percentage gains in viewers, households and women 25-54, and closed the gap between it and “Today,” the second place morning show.

Locally, the show’s popularity is remarkable. Among the top 25 CBS affiliates, “CBS This Morning” does best in the Raleigh-Durham market, both in households and with adults 25-54, the key demographics, according to Steve Hammel, vice president and general manager at WRAL. “Often times, their first half hour beats ‘Good Morning America,’ but in general, ‘Good Morning America’ is 1 and ‘CBS This Morning’ is 2.”

So while they’re not declaring victory, Rose, King and O’Donnell, heading toward a year of working together, are feeling pretty good.

How it began

But back to the beginning. King says the offer to join the new program came out of the blue. “I was very happy at Oprah magazine and at OWN,” she says. “When they mentioned Charlie Rose, I almost fell out of my friggin’ chair,” she says, to Rose and O’Donnell’s laughter. For his part, Rose has a long relationship with CBS, from his work on the defunct “60 Minutes 2,” serving as a “60 Minutes” correspondent and on “Person to Person.” It was CBS News chairman Jeff Fager who brought the new job and the new direction to the PBS host.

“I liked the fact that they had failed in the past,” says Rose. “I’d rather be on a show with a long way to go than on a show where the only way to go is down. And I knew the talents here were being underutilized. I knew we had a lot of storytellers here.”

The duo was, as one critic described, an “audacious and intriguing combination,” but the show became stronger when O’Donnell, the chief White House correspondent for CBS News, came on board in September, replacing Erica Hill. O’Donnell acknowledges the honor and prestige of a position that gave her a close-up view of the presidency, but she says, “There’s also a tradition of those kinds of jobs leading to big anchor jobs in New York. My mom said, ‘Are you kidding me? You get to work with Gayle King and Charlie Rose!’ ”

King says the chemistry among the three was immediate. “And you can’t fake that. It either works or it doesn’t.”

Of course, in the age when media reports have detailed the Matt Lauer vs. Ann Curry debacle, believing in the family atmosphere on a morning show can be naive. Yet, the “CBS This Morning” team has a decidedly adult take on that too. King admits the trio, with busy individual lives, don’t hang out when the camera’s not on. But O’Donnell adds, they have a mutual respect and admiration for each other. “It’s a dynamic that works very well.”

Which is to say, don’t believe the tabloid accusations about problems between O’Donnell and King. “That comes with the territory,” King says of a New York Post report. “When I read of any kind of tension on this show, I wonder what show they are looking at. What I’ve seen written doesn’t reflect the reality.”

Balancing their strengths

Indeed, each member of the trio seems to have a distinct role. King, who’s had her own talk show on TV and radio and worked in local news, comes across as an everywoman, despite the fact that she’s best friends with icon Oprah Winfrey. “She has an enormous sense of soul, an instinct for the human story,” Rose says of King. “And she’s as well-read as any body I know; she reads more books than I do and tells me that everyday.”

O’Donnell’s reporting chops help, especially in the first hour, bringing an authority to coverage of hard news stories. “She has a way of holding someone’s feet to the fire without decimating them,” says King. “That’s a real skill.”

And Rose? “I’m just another pretty face,” he says, sparking more laughter. Of course, he’s far more. A celebrated interviewer of, well, everyone, on his 22 years of “Charlie Rose” on PBS, he says his North Carolina upbringing has aided him.

“Regardless of what I’ve done with my life, the thing that has guided me is a great curiosity. I’ve grown up around folks with a great sense of language and storytelling. From Faulkner to my great friend at Duke, Reynolds Price, I’ve seen what you can do with language, how you can use it to inform and explain.”

If this all sounds a bit stuffy, King wants to assure you that “we’re not snooty poofs.” Sure, on a recent morning there was no mention of Kim Kardashian’s new baby (“I would have said to Charlie ‘Where were you when you heard the news?’ ” says King), but King says there are no absolutes. In fact, the death of “Sopranos” star James Gandolfini led the June 20 broadcast.

But front and center is the relationship between Rose, King and O’Donnell. And on this day, at least, they seem to really like one another.

A question about North Carolina leads to a conversation about Duke: King’s son is a Duke grad, so she and Rose are trying to set O’Donnell’s young twins on the Blue Devil path. Then King tells about the time she was roundly booed for wearing a Duke t-shirt while covering a story on barbecue at Allen & Sons. “I had to go to the bathroom and change.”

When Rose is asked about his latest job (he’ll be the host of “Charlie Rose Weekend,” a half-hour show launching on PBS in July) and about his insatiable curiosity, there’s naughty laughter. Rose jokes, “On the advice of counsel, I decline to answer.” And when it’s suggested, after he declares jokingly that he’d like to be the next governor of North Carolina, that Rose is perhaps tied in high esteem with North Carolina icon Charles Kuralt but below Andy Griffith and Billy Graham, he speaks lovingly of Kuralt, whom he eulogized, and then there’s some murmuring. “He said, ‘I’m gaining on Billy Graham,’ ” O’Donnell reveals with a giggle.

“Everyday we think about not what we’ve done, but what we have to do,” says Rose, ending on an earnest note. “We’re not treating this as something to throw a parade and clap our hands over. We’ve just begun.”