Media-Savvy Nation Helps And Hinders 'This Morning'

Nervous guests are few; so are pols who get to the point

'WE'RE back! Stand by!'' Stage manager Tony Mirante's crisp voice silences the small talk among the TV crew in Faneuil Hall. ''CBS This Morning'' is about to go back on live.

The familiar CBS news-magazine show, in Boston for a three-day stint, is making much of historic places like Paul Revere's house. But it's also visiting hot-button sites like the abortion clinic in neighboring Brookline, Mass., where a highly publicized shooting recently took place.

The morning news magazine genre has a special place in network programming: part news, part feature, a mix of items that tries to capture viewers whose interests are varied. They want to be informed but they want to be diverted at the same time.

It's a tricky demand, and seeing the show in action -- and a later chat with cohosts Harry Smith and Paula Zahn -- reveals how the morning programming format operates and how its cohosts view their highly visible jobs.

The first-hand look also suggests how this TV-magazine genre differs from such regular network news shows as ''The CBS Evening News'' and also from the tab-TV ''news'' shows that have become so visible these days.

The Boston stint is one of several away-from-home excursions that the New York-based show has been making during the past few months.

In some cases the purpose is to bolster the ratings of a local CBS station carrying the show.

That's especially important with Boston's WBZ, Channel 4. Like several other network affiliates in major markets around the United States in the last couple of years, WBZ recently switched networks -- in this case, from NBC to CBS. Both CBS and WBZ hope the show's visit serves as a much-needed attention-getter.

When Smith and Zahn get another brief off-camera break, a makeup woman takes advantage of the moment to walk onto the dais and dab Zahn's face with a powder puff as Zahn sips hurriedly from a cup -- stopping just in time to jump into a remote interview.

''Senator Kennedy, thank you very much for joining us this morning,'' Zahn says, gulping again as he responds.

Is this rush of minute-by-minute events pretty much the same from one city to another for Smith and Zahn? Is there really a difference in the feel of a show, depending on where you were?

''Without question,'' says Smith emphatically, when he has come over and sat down -- muffin and mug in hand -- after the broadcast.

''It's not like a news piece, where you run to the airport, hop in a taxi, run to the story, run back to the airport, and out again,'' he says. ''When you plant the show some place for a couple of days, you do have that chance to interact with the people. Paula and I have both been flying up here after the show [in New York] in the morning to work on stories for the last two weeks.''

Zahn concurs. ''There's tremendous difference,'' she says when we speak later. ''For 14 years I was a street reporter -- the one you'd see out there doing those 'live minicam reports,''' she says as her voice takes on a self-mocking announcer's tone.

''What's different about this show is that we're on the air for two hours, I'm hosting it, and there's a much greater variety of material to communicate than there is in a local news show. This show requires me to be alert for a 2-1/2-hour period.''

For Smith, the prevalence of news programs presents another challenge for ''CBS This Morning'' and other magazine news shows.

''There's so much media,'' he says, ''that almost any place you go in America, everyone has been on television already. They've already talked to the local news or cable. It's so pervasive.

''Years ago when you used to go with a camera crew, it got some attention. Now it gets no attention at all. It's a commonplace thing. It's rare that someone comes on our show and feels nervous, or apprehensive.

''One of the most difficult things in our job in these finite amounts of time is getting people, especially from Washington, to tell us what's really on their mind and not what the company line is,'' Zahn says.

Recently Zahn taped a feature at Parris Island in Beaufort, S.C. The result was a five-part series called ''A Few Good Women,'' whose final segment airs today.

''I trained with Marine recruits who were, of course, half my age. I stood in line for the bathroom. They didn't cut me any slack, either, I'll tell you that,'' she recalls, chuckling at this image of herself. ''I got yelled at by those drill instructors as much as the average recruit.''

Did she have a chance to put her drill instructors on the defensive when she got them on camera?

With another laugh she recalls her attitude when the roles were reversed: ''Now it's my turn.''

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