Despite what the promos tell you, there are two morning show anniversaries this week. NBC's "Today" was born 60 years ago (Jan. 14, 1952 exactly), while CBS' morning show, then known as "The CBS Morning News" -- we'll get around to the new name in a minute -- was reborn 27 years ago (Jan. 14, 1985). That was the one with Phyllis George as co-host. Remember that? (Her?)
Unlikely, which says everything about the way things have gone in the morning ever since for CBS. Another newcomer arrives Monday renamed "CBS This Morning." The program borrows an old name (1987-99) to mark a new direction (more hard-news oriented), with new hosts, Charlie Rose and Gayle King (with Erica Hill held over from "The Early Show").
The Phyllis George fiasco was CBS' last, best effort to take out "Today." The former Miss America and "NFL Today" co-host was the Hail Mary to the end zone -- except there was no one there to catch her. The show flopped, and ever since . . . well, you know the "ever since" part. A parade of hosts have cycled through, including such luminaries as Maria Shriver, Forrest Sawyer, Bryant Gumbel, Harry Smith and Paula Zahn, in an unsuccessful attempt to gain on its competitors.
WE'LL TAKE THIRD, THANK YOU Why the latest face-lift? At 60, "Today" is still -- old news -- No. 1. In fact, all that matters here may be the "what", and what CBS appears to be thinking is that third place is just fine. If so, that's a radical reformulation for morning TV. The networks have always preached bulk and mass, from which spring profits, if not always good TV. But cable long ago discovered that small can be beautiful, too; it's not about the biggest audience (goes the spin) but the "best," meaning "most affluent."
The evidence that CBS has officially conceded may lie with its choice of hosts. Rose is one of the best thinking-on-his-feet-and-seat interviewers TV has. He's a deeply serious newsman who even once dumped a lucrative Fox syndicated gig after belatedly learning he had jumped aboard a "Current Affair" clone.
But he's also 70, and operates his late night PBS talker (and will continue to do so) from an aerie on the West Side that is more like a salon than a TV program.
Oprah's pal King is good, too. Facile and likable, she may have chemistry with Rose -- a solo act virtually his entire career -- but possibly not.
If CBS is taking that road less taken, it may be the best one of all.
There is an audience for hard news in the morning, absent cooking, weather, or anything to do with a Kardashian.
TROUBLE AHEAD FOR 'TODAY?' Meanwhile, the future doesn't look all that clear for "Today" either. Matt Lauer will almost certainly be gone within two years, hardly enough time to groom a successor -- who could even be Ryan Seacrest.
Meanwhile "Good Morning America" is furiously clawing for every stray viewer. Any mistake in the transition will be ugly, or (worse) costly.
Yes, third place looks just fine.
The peacock celebrates
Here's how "Today" will mark its 60th anniversary:
* Each day this week, "Today" anchors will take a look back at the show's history. Segments will include how the show was produced in 1952, as well as how it evolved with technology over the years.
* On Thursday, there will be a "special lighting" of the Empire State Building -- red, orange and yellow, like the show's rainbow logo.
* There will be celebrity guests all week, as well as a taped greeting from President Barack Obama and the first lady.
* Friday's show features a celebration in the studio with previous anchors Meredith Vieira, Katie Couric, Bryant Gumbel, Tom Brokaw, Jane Pauley, Barbara Walters, Hugh Downs, Jim Hartz and Deborah Norville.