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Morning Sickness



Published July 26, 2006 at 4:00 p.m.

I'm pretty sick of morning TV. The only thing I'm more sick of is that damn Taylor Hicks Ford commercial. The "American Idol" vet's spot comes on about every five minutes every day on every channel. I wouldn't be surprised to pick up the paper one day and read that the military is torturing prisoners at Gitmo by making them watch that thing.

Anyway, I've begun to get kind of queasy and lightheaded every time I pour a cup of coffee, sit down with the family, and attempt to endure a few minutes of "The Today Show," "Good Morning America," "The Early Show" or any of their ever-multiplying cable clones. Breakfast may be the most important meal of the day, but the programming served at that hour is increasingly likely to prove the most insipid you'll encounter in a given 24-hour period.

With Katie Couric going to "The CBS Evening News," Charlie Gibson going to "World News Tonight," and Star Jones just going, morning television is experiencing the greatest makeover in its nearly 55-year history. New faces will soon greet us as we start our day. New ad campaigns will help us keep track of which personalities will shortly arrive at what shows. Some networks will launch new morning programs. However, one thing seems guaranteed to remain unchanged: Morning television will keep getting dumber.

Did you know Sigourney Weaver's father invented morning TV? Pat Weaver was an NBC executive and visionary ("The Tonight Show" and, by extension, late-night TV were his creations as well). He deduced that the network would do well to provide breadwinners preparing for work and homemakers readying kids for school with broadcasting geared to their specific needs and interests. This was 1952, after all, so you can't really fault the guy. Hence "The Today Show"'s long-standing tradition of formatting its first hour for men (news and world affairs) and the rest of the program for women (cooking segments, beauty tips, celebrity interviews, etc.).

My problem with the morning shows isn't that nearly every one of them has been ripping off the "Today" formula for decades. The problem is, this isn't 1952. American society has evolved, and Weaver's template is obsolete. Despite the present dearth of TV visionaries, network executives have somehow managed to grasp this, and they've made adjustments. Big, dumb adjustments.

What broadcasters have done across the board in recent years is bafflingly counterintuitive. Despite the fact that a larger percentage of men now work out of their homes and millions more women rush out to the office in the morning, Weaver's male-viewer content has been all but jettisoned, while the sorts of segments once intended for female viewers have come to dominate nearly all morning shows.

Where veteran journalists and no-nonsense anchors once played the role of morning host, we now find ourselves facing a mostly interchangeable collection of bantering Barbie and Ken dolls. Morning-show chairs were once occupied by the likes of Walter Cronkite, Jack Paar, Mike Wallace, Bob Schieffer, Lesley Stahl, Richard Threlkeld and Charles Kuralt. These days you're lucky if the 25-year-old at the "news desk" can identify Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, much less pronounce his name.

Of course, who needs Walter Cronkite to run your show if all you're going to offer viewers is a mindless lazy Susan of the same old segments? How do these shows drive me nuts? Let me count the ways. Forget about news beyond the most superficial headlines. And forget about getting even superficial headlines that pertain to most places on planet Earth. Most morning shows today squander most of their airtime, day after day, on the following:


The same national obesity statistics are quoted in piece after piece, as if the country just woke up and found out it's fat. Programmers milk the subject shamelessly. Last week "Today" reported on the latest "trend" in pound shedding: prayer. Right, I'm sure it's sweeping the nation. Where in the world, I ask, is Matt Lauer's dignity?


Hello. It's not an interview. It's an ad. There are more commercials than ever as it is. I don't need to watch a 4-minute one in which Harry Smith tries to sell me on seeing Little Man.


I'm not making this up: Last week "GMA" did, like, its millionth piece on "How to Stay Cool When It's Hot Out." Alert the Nobel committee. Turns out it's a good idea to drink plenty of water and stay out of the sun.


So why do all these shows force us to watch so many cooking segments? Last week both "The Early Show" and "Today" did segments on how to cook hamburgers. Millions of people in the world are starving, and this is how morning news shows use their airtime? We don't need Martha Stewart to show us how to whip up a cheeseburger. How do you think we got so fat in the first place?


Thank God for the money-management experts who've become a staple of morning shows, providing valuable tips like these for saving at the supermarket: Don't make impulse purchases. Do use coupons. And after the break: Why it's not a good idea to bet your family home on poker night.


One of the most irritating new trends is wasting valuable news-analysis time by reading the results of viewer polls and, even worse, actual viewer emails. "Fox & Friends" even takes calls from opinionated, longwinded viewers. The network's news bureau has a reporter on the Lebanese border, but we're listening to insights on the latest crisis from someone named Cliff in Fort Wayne.


Every day these shows dig up a new disease or health danger for you to lose sleep over. Such as: On July 20 "Good Morning America" ran a feature entitled "Can Surgery Make You Catch Fire?" Their expert's advice was "Choose an experienced doctor." Oh, so faith healers with flamethrowers aren't the way to go? Who knew?


I thought the feminist movement had put a stake through the Avon Lady's heart, but evidently I was misinformed. Programmers apparently believe there's an audience for endless makeover segments, and even plugs for cosmetic interventions such as "A Face Lift in 30 Minutes or Less," which aired recently on "Today."


Once upon a time, celebrities were prone to this. These days, you're more likely to catch a network in the act. It's become standard practice to run a truncated "teaser" report on a morning show and then inform titillated viewers that the complete piece can be seen later that evening on a news magazine such as "Dateline" or "Primetime." That's not synergy. It's disguising promos as programming.


Again, it's not a performance. It's an ad. "Today" came up with the concert series concept years ago and all the competition has copied it. I happened to switch on "GMA" the other day and practically suffered a breakdown. There he was on the outdoor stage, promoting his first post-"Idol" release: Taylor Hicks. I wasn't about to wait around to see what the commercial break would bring. I had a pretty good idea.

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