WHAT IT'S ABOUT "CBS News Sunday Morning," which launched Jan. 28, 1979, will celebrate its 40th year on the air with this hourlong prime-time special (8 p.m. Friday on CBS/2) featuring profiles of Ralph Lauren, Chrissy Teigen, John Legend and Robert Redford. There will also be a profile of Louise Brown, now 40, who was the first person conceived through in vitro fertilization. A review copy was not available.
MY SAY Forty years have come and gone on this planet since the first "Sunday Morning." Wars have been fought. A reality TV star is president. News is everywhere and yet nowhere. A foreground din fills the ears, crowds the thoughts, increases the dread. But not at "Sunday Morning." Nothing — and no one — crowds anything or anyone at "Sunday Morning." Listen carefully and you can almost hear the birds — or crickets, depending on your taste for this sort of fare — chirping away at the West 57th Street studios. The world roars by. "Sunday Morning" maintains a perfect Zen calm.
For this reason, we should all be a little suspicious of Friday's first-ever prime-time special. "Sunday Morning" belongs in prime time about as much as a koala belongs at a rodeo. Prime time, particularly CBS', can be a dangerous, noisy, violent, teeming place. "Sunday Morning" is a redoubt, a sanctuary, the infinity pool of TV news shows, or the koala bear of them.
Speaking of teeming, this special apparently teems with personality profiles and a Mo Rocca piece on CBS stars (uh-oh). Ted Koppel is supposed to recite a verse dedicated to the 40th anniversary. What's going on here? A "Sunday Morning" rap battle?
But seriously — and fans are always serious about their cherished "Sunday Morning" — everything probably will be just fine and a welcome reminder why this quirky jewel has thrived all these decades.
"Sunday Morning" was conceived back in the dawn of network news, or what seems like the dawn now, as a counterpart to "60 Minutes." The latter conspicuously linked its style to the clock, via that insistent stopwatch at the top of each story. By contrast, "Sunday Morning" seemed to conspicuously link its style to "Walden." With each story, time and space almost drifted off the screen into the world beyond, where all was languor and serenity. Nostalgia was the star here, so was the past.
The father of this TV news anomaly was a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, where he was wounded, then returned to cut his teeth in Chicago journalism. Tempestuous and occasionally intemperate, Robert J. Northshield — "Shad" to colleagues — was also a brilliant and intuitive producer. He understood that viewers wanted their Sunday morning TV served over easy. They didn't want to be rushed.
Northshield, who died in 2000, infused his own tastes. There were profiles on jazz bassist Milt Hinton and trumpeter Doc Cheatham, others on soprano Jessye Norman and composer Aaron Copland. Classical music remains to this day.
His intuition could be counterintuitive. TV then as now is built on a wall of sound, mostly chatter, more often babble. It abhors silence as nature abhors vacuums. Yet Northshield brought silence to "Sunday Morning." He once told a reporter, "It takes great effort to keep your mouth shut. In television, writing involves keeping your mouth shut more than anything else." Northshield initiated the classic "Sunday" endpiece, a minute or two of some scene in nature, filled only with the sounds of silence.
He had good luck. (Great successes always do.) "Morning's" first anchor was Charles Kuralt, almost as perfectly matched as anchor to show as anyone in TV history. The second was Charles Osgood, who was as perfectly matched as anyone in TV history. Kuralt brought an avuncular aura to "Sundays." Osgood brought a beatific one.
What of Jane Pauley? Even though a legend in her own right, she's still the new kid here (she began as anchor two years ago). But so far so good. Last spring, for example, she appeared on-screen knitting, and with her hands methodically moving back and forth (knit one, purl one), she explained that (purl one, knit one) "in knitting, I've been a beginner for about 30 years."
Then, as she cast a baleful eye at each stitch, added, "but there is still no better way to take it slow."
Perfect, Jane, just perfect. Or perfect for "Sunday Morning" anyway.