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Gumbel savors spotlight

NBC Today show anchor Bryant Gumbel is perched atop a grassy hill, sitting in a blue canvas director's chair. It's a little after 7 a.m., and Gumbel is host of the Today show from Walt Disney World. Behind him, the mammoth Cinderella castle towers above the Magic Kingdom, glistening with the morning dew, and in front of him, a furry brown rabbit nibbles grass at the bottom of the hill in this pastoral, on-location setting.

"He's livid," groans a Disney promotion staffer, as Gumbel makes happy morning talk on-camera. She explains that a number of celebrities aren't showing up now for the 2nd Annual Bryant Gumbel-Walt Disney World Pro-Am Golf Tournament, and that makes Gumbel grumpy. (The tournament, the weekend of Oct. 19-21, raised $225,000 for the United Negro College Fund.)

Not that he seems to be in a bad mood. It's just that 42-year-old Bryant Charles Gumbel, the $2-million a year anchor who has been tagged "the best morning TV news interviewer" by his journalism peers, is a known perfectionist. Even his wife, June, according to the Biography Yearbook, has acknowledged in the past that "he can't stand professional ineptness, and sometimes he'll take it out on a door or wall when he gets home."

So when people don't fulfill their obligations, at work or play, it agitates this son of a late Chicago probate judge, who raised Bryant and his brother Greg, now a CBS sportscaster, in strict fashion.

8:58. 8:59. 9 a.m. Gumbel is off the air.

Another day is over on Today and Gumbel, who in January 1982 became the first black to host Today in its 30-year history, looks uptight as he walks toward this interview.

"Five minutes,' he yells to an approaching assistant who also wants his attention. But Gumbel ends up chatting 35 minutes about everything from Jane Pauley's much-ballyhooed departure from Today to the admission that the nattiest dresser on the airwaves is "really rather sloppy," preferring jeans and a T-shirt when he's hanging out with his family.

What's his immediate thought when he wraps up a Today segment? "I think about it less than most people do in terms of great relief," he says, finishing a few nibbles on a sweet roll he just grabbed, propping up his pair of imported loafers on a folding chair.

"What always occurs to me is that I'm 22 hours removed from the next one and that there's a lot of things that have to be done," he says with a pinched face. Then he breaks into a grin and leans back with a yawning gesture. "But I'm into a holiday now."

Snapping back to the topic of Today, Gumbel repeats that "by 9, I'm already well into what happens next. The real difficulty of doing a show like ours is _ if you put it in production terms _ we're always on line. So it's difficult to tinker with the machinery while it's gotta continue to be running on a constant basis."

No, he doesn't watch tapes of his past performances to see what he could have done better. And no, he doesn't even attend a daily Today staff meeting because there isn't one. Gumbel and the rest of the Today crew, co-anchors Deborah Norville and Joe Garagiola, news anchor Faith Daniels, weatherman Willard Scott and entertainment reviewer Gene Shalit, "work on an individual basis" explains Gumbel.

Is he the best morning interviewer on television, as voted by 1,000 journalists in a 1986 Washington Journal Review poll?

He laughs heartily at the question: "I don't know. I leave those judgments to others," he says, adding that he's flattered if people think he's the best.

Gumbel doesn't answer the question of whether there's another broadcaster past or present whose interviewing style he admires, such as Walter Cronkite or Ted Koppel. Instead, he says that he wouldn't interview anybody like Barbara Walters does and he wouldn't try with his guests what William F. Buckley does.

Sitting on a bench next to a Disney-made lagoon, Gumbel motions to an assistant that it's all right to come over and dab off his make-up with a wet towel. As his face is massaged, he relaxes and tells a warm story about his family. He and his wife of 16 years and their two children, Bradley Christopher, 11, and Jillian Beth, 7, have visited Disney often over the years.

"I still have a picture of him (Bradley) when he came up to Mickey's buttons," he says. "And now he can rest his elbow on Mickey's head. It's fun, but I can see them shifting a little bit now. My son says, "I'll do one day at Disney and the next I'll come out and caddy for you,'

" Gumbel states with obvious pride.

Gumbel, whose name TV writers often link with words such as aggressive, aloof and arrogant, says that he's well aware of his negative image, especially after this last disastrous year for the Today show.

He explains that if he's not generally loved by viewers as his former co-host Pauley was and is, it's because "I do the things that are hard to do in the morning. The interviews that don't require a lot of laughs and sunshine, I wind up doing them, and that's okay."

But Gumbel's handling of the helm at Today since Pauley's departure is apparently not okay with lots of the show's former fans.

According to a recent New York Times article, the end result of the Today turbulence (the infamous Gumbel memo harshly criticizing the popular Scott; the Pauley-Norville switch; change in newscasters and the upheaval in the off-camera staff) is a ratings plunge that has cost NBC millions of viewers and dollars. "Since the spring of 1989," reports the Times, "Today has lost more than 15 percent of its audience, relinquishing its position as the network morning leader to ABC's Good Morning America. The toll has been most costly among the viewers advertisers most want to reach in the morning: younger women. GMA's ascension has meant a daily six-figure income advantage over Today."

Does Gumbel believe he's responsible for any of this chaos and ensuing decline of Today?

He answers this question by throwing back his head and letting out a string of ha ha ha's. "Did I make Jane walk the plank? Is that the question?" he asks with a big grin on his face.

"Jane and I are extremely good friends. What happened has been rehashed a zillion times over, and what baffles me is how unwilling people are to believe the truth of it."

Which is? Gumbel doesn't respond directly; instead he says, "What if someone comes to me and says, "Hey, what do you think? So and so wants off the program.' I can't stop that."

Gumbel says he offers Today opinions "in an advisory capacity" but when asked if that still includes writing memos he again laughs, and says, "They still ask my advice."

By they he mainly means NBC news head Michael Gartner, who joined the network in August 1988 and comes from a newspaper background.

Gumbel says that he and his relatively new boss Gartner were "don't-invite-thems" to the same party because they weren't on friendly terms. But now, the two are close, says Gumbel. "Michael appreciates that, look it's my face that's out there. They can do all the tinkering they want. But ultimately, it's a reflection of me."

When asked if he foresees any changes on Today within the next six months (a rumor is circulating that Norville may be on her way out), Gumbel answers vaguely, "I always see changes. We're trying to make the program the best."

Gumbel's NBC contract is up next year at this time. But his Today renewal isn't a sure thing, he speculates. "I don't want my presence to be a burden to NBC or for the program. And as long as I can feel satisfied with the job, and the people who are paying me are satisfied, then I'll continue to do it," he says. A few minutes later, he adds that when his contract negotiations come up "as we get closer to the date, I'm obviously going to entertain some other offers."

One offer he won't entertain is a return to sports (he was an NBC sportscaster from 1972-1981).

"Why go back and wreck memories?" he jokes. Anyway, he predicts that TV sports is headed away from the networks toward "a pay-per-view cable kind of thing."

He adds, "The rates are such, the contracts are such, that it's going to become increasingly unattractive for the networks to be in on it (sports) on a full-time basis. .

.

. My future is better served by just staying where I am."

His brother Greg, 44, who this summer became host of CBS's NFL Today and the sports commentator for CBS This Morning, which airs opposite the Today show, has a different perspective. He told TV Guide "I like sports" and nixed the idea that his future plans include a news anchor job.

Gumbel says, "I talk to him (Greg) every week, and he's having fun. But I don't see his work as much as you think. When he made his debut (on This Morning), I was in Saudi Arabia."

Couldn't he tape his brother? "I don't know how my VCR machine works," Gumbel quips.

Dressed in khaki slacks and a blue blazer, Gumbel, with a round but not plump face, has a self-admitted tendency to gain weight. In fact, that's the most surprisingly thing about seeing him in person _ he's thick around the middle, and his having a stocky body doesn't match his camera-perfect head.

He jokes about his size (he's 5-foot-9) by saying "at this point in my life, I'm more interested in just kind of hiding the bulges. I go up and down on the roller coaster (of weight gain). There are days when I look in the mirror and go 'ugh.' And then I lose 10 pounds and then I go on a trip and I gain it back."

He admits he likes to wear nice clothes when he dresses up or plays golf. In fact, he took a lot of ribbing by the press when he anchored NBC's coverage of the Seoul Olympics in an array of Ralph Lauren suits and fastidiously coordinated ties, cuff links and socks. But he swears that he wears jeans and a T-shirt more often than not.

At the end of the interview, though, the subject drifts to Florida's balmy year-round weather. And Gumbel's true clothes-lover instinct surfaces.

"I actually end up rooting for fall because I've got all these great clothes I'm dying to wear," he confesses, before going off to play his 12-handicap game of golf.

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