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Big news on the morning shift

When George Washington was elected president it took about six months for the news to spread to the corners of the newly formed country. Last week on all of television's morning news shows, the particulars of the Trumps' pending divorce were put through the wringer and hung out to dry before most Americans even had the toast buttered.

Each morning millions of us depend on the tube for information, be it instant celeb gossip updates or riveting breaking news _ such as the live shots of Nelson Mandela speaking at a soccer stadium in Soweto, South Africa, which also dominated the a.m. news last week.

Which morning show do viewers watch the most and why? ABC's Good Morning America has been the ratings leader for the past six weeks, pushing NBC's Today out of its five-year reign into second place.

CBS This Morning, which recently announced the departure of Kathleen Sullivan from its co-hosting team, continues to languish in third place. Harry Smith soon will be joined by former Good Morning America news reader Paula Zahn, who left the show last Thursday.

It's too simple to accredit Good Morning America's sudden jump in the ratings to Today's dumping of longtime co-host Jane Pauley, but Pauley's departure certainly is a contributing factor.

Today had been slipping in what is called key demographics for some time now, in this case the important 18-49 age

category of viewers, so John Palmer was ousted as news reader and Deborah Norville (she's called "Deb" by everyone on the show) was brought in because it was believed that a more zestful presence would help lure a younger audience. What followed instead is well-documented; Pauley ended up leaving amid reports of cat fighting on the set.

The above could be written off as silly except for the very nature of morning shows. They all offer a variety of news, interviews and features, with lots of national and local weather interspersed. If you switch around to all three, you won't come away dizzy or even confused. It's the same format. As USA Today critically noted recently, "Everyone is doing the Today show, afraid to break away from the mold."

So why a viewer decides to tune in to one show often does come down to the chemistry between the personalities _ or the "right mix," as show biz execs like to say.

These warm and comfy personalities are often the first faces many see each morning. Certainly, people just getting up don't want to be jarred by an obvious clash of egos and Today of Our Lives drama. The nature of Pauley's departure is more upsetting than NBC officials want to admit. Perhaps now that Good Morning America's Charles Gibson and Joan Lunden have been together for three years, this "right mix" is beginning to cement with a growing audience that has returned GMA to the No. 1 spot _ where it was from 1980-85.

The morning shows are purposely low-key, non-confrontational, kaffeeklatsches. Major issues and hot trends are covered but in a glazed doughnut kind of way _ with holes by most newscast standards. Satellite interviews that lean toward canonizing the interviewee are the norm, as are chummy in-studio chats with guests. Today's interviews with the Rolling Stones last week were just too, too cute.

The a.m. environment is all very cocoon-like. When was the last time a morning co-host aggressively stuck a microphone in a newsmaker's face at the scene of a breaking story? Recent criticism was leveled at all three morning shows for not venturing just 20 minutes from their studios for a co-host to report on the Avianca plane crash.

The folksy-family meeting in a bright setting doesn't have to be the way morning TV is done. Maybe viewers have matured enough to want more news at a quicker pace _ the way CNN handles the wake-up bulletins.

Changes and challengers for the networks will come in time. After all, everyone said you couldn't build a better Tonight format. Then along came upstart Arsenio Hall, and the headlines blared: "TV's hip host grabs the post-Carson generation."

Watch for the post-Today to pop up on one of the networks some morning.

The juicy part tonight

Tonight is extra juicy on ABC's six-hour mini-series The Kennedys of Massachusetts, which airs at 9 on Channels 10 and 40. Joe Kennedy's affair with movie star Gloria Swanson gets the once-over (the series concludes on Wednesday).

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