That's the question I asked CBS News boss Sean McManus Tuesday while we were talking about the wholesale ouster of The Early Show's on-air team. It's not that I have anything against the program or the people on it. (Maggie Rodriguez in particular, who knows how to ask guests good questions, then keep her mouth shut while they answer, a skill often in short supply in morning television.) But as McManus readily admitted, CBS has a track record of ratings failure in morning news that goes back more than half a century. "There've been many, many, many iterations and reiterations of the show," he said, "and nothing has worked."
So why do it? Pulling in an audience has only gotten harder over the past 15 years as CBS competes against morning news programs not just on NBC and ABC but CNN, HLN, Fox News, MSNBC, CNBC, Bloomberg and who knows who else. Where is it written that every network has to air news between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m.?
The answer, McManus said, is on the bottom line.
"These shows are so very profitable," he told me. "It's a good way to amortize your news costs. The Early Show make a profit for CBS News and for the corporation. It doesn't make as much as The Today Show or Good Morning America, but it makes a nice profit. It's an important show for us to do."
Not that McManus hasn't pondered getting rid of morning news -- as, he's sure, the other broadcast networks have also done. "All of us have looked at something different in that time slot. We all do a lot of testing, we all do a lot of focus groups. What about doing an Entertainment Tonight-type show? What about doing an all-hard-news show?
"But we all come back to the same thing. In the morning, there's a certain type of show people want to watch. And it's the mix that we all come back to, the one we all use now: hard news and light features and live interviews."
Of course, some shows do it better than others, at least in the ratings, which brings us to the subject of HLN's sneaky success with Robin Meade's morning program. Hardly anybody (except, I'm sure, the Time Warner suits) seems to have noticed it, but Meade's show is steadily rising in the ratings. Meade has been whipping her CNN cousin competitors, John Roberts and Kiran Chetry, for quite a while now in terms of total viewers.
But these days the margin in the prime news demographic of age 25 to 54, Meade's ratings are doublethose of the CNN show. For that matter, she's also bringing in more viewers in the demo than MSNBC's Morning Joe show, 186,000 to 141,000. (Morning Joe still has the lead in total viewers, and all three shows trail way behind Fox & Friends.)
Gossip has circulated for months that CNN is on the verge of dumping Roberts and Chetry in favor of a program featuring an ideological clash between hosts or even a petting zoo, anything to attract some eyeballs. But with the show's audience dropping below a quarter of a million viewers, the rumors are gaining some urgency. They were not exactly quelled when Roberts snapped at a colleague on the air recently, which you can see in the clip below. The Huffington Post reported he was telling Chetry to quit typing so loudly. (Maybe she was doing her resume?) But who knows? Maybe he was really talking to Robin Meade.