The embarrassed newsman co-host, Rolland Smith, refuses to demonstrate his basso profundo by singing the low notes from ``Ol' Man River'' at the urging of the insistent comic sidekick, Bob Saget. Co-host Mariette Hartley urges them on, as she and weatherman Mark McEwen laugh so hard they almost fall off their stools. They're sitting in front of a breakfast bar on a set that looks like a comfortable, suburban household, complete with blazing fire in the fireplace.
We're in a CBS studio, watching the next-to-last run-through of the network's controversial new ``The Morning Show'' (weekdays, 7:30-9 a.m.) scheduled to premi`ere today, just after the ``CBS Morning News.'' It is controversial mainly because responsibility for the show has been moved from the network's news division to its entertainment division, with the assumption that morning viewers aren't ready for hard news.
The studio audience of about 25 consists mostly of staff members who are assigned to play various roles in simulated interview segments. In front of each seat are Yes/No buttons that aren't yet connected to the electric circuits that eventually will record audience votes on such issues as sex education in the classroom, also to be voted on by home viewers who, at a cost of 50 cents each, will be able to phone in their opinions.
The format seems to be pleasant enough. There is a ``Comedy Club'' segment featuring a clip of Henny Youngman telling his old but still funny jokes; an interview with a Pentagaon whistle-blower; a movie reviewer; a gossip columnist; and lots of amiable chatting between segments.
At each quarter-hour, newsman Smith introduces a five-minute segment presented by the CBS news division. During such breaks a hairdresser zooms onto the set and fusses over everybody, especially Mariette, who is dressed casually in a loose-fitting sweater, long skirt, and boots. Smith wears a formal dark blue suit. They are dressed to sustain the image: Bubbly, informal Hartley can bounce off a cool, straight Smith.
The final segment is a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., with staff members sitting in for Martin Luther King High School students and singer Leona Mitchell. Hartley suggests everybody sing ``We Shall Overcome'' as the show ends. Nobody seems to know any of the words, other than the title. ``What a bunch of WASPs we have here!'' exclaims Hartley in mock desperation.
Hartley and I have a brunch date, so I wait for her while she attends a private post-mortem of the morning's rehearsal with producer Bob Shanks and the rest of the cast. While sitting here, I review adjectives the audience was asked to give to describe the show. From among them, ``toasty,'' ``fun,'' and ``family'' seem apt. But ``dynamic,'' ``informative,'' and ``innovative'' are something else again. ``The Morning Program'' seemed to this critic more like a combination of Regis Philbin's ``Morning Show'' and the early David Hartman ``Good Morning, America,'' both of which were produced by Shanks. Even with such highly-publicized segments as a video dating service, a sensible-shopping segment, and a silly, dumb news feature, everything has a familiar ring.
What makes the show different is Mariette Hartley, an open, honest, intelligent but not brilliant everywoman. She is vulnerable and charming, with a pretty but not gorgeous face that reflects an ingenuous, childlike wonderment at the delights around her.
CBS is giving Hartley star treatment: A stretch limo is provided to take us to the Mayflower Hotel for brunch. As we enter, all eyes in the dining room focus on this seemingly unobtrusive woman, who somehow emanates an aura of stardom as she orders eggs Benedict.
``The whole atmosphere is so different from what it was when I did three weeks on the `Today' show in 1979,'' she says. ``It was a stretching experience for me. My training was in theater, and I was asked to be a journalist. In this show I am not being asked to be anybody other than who I am.
``But I don't consider the `Today' experience a failure. I learned how to do interviews. Tom Brokaw has been criticized for not being patient enough with me. But, in his defense, he is a news purist, and what he does is absolutely right for him. When we were thrown together, there was the matter of an actress coming in to do the news. I was missing the camera, not reading very well - there was a lot of stuff I had to get used to. Now, Rolland is very supportive and helpful and gentle about these things.
``I got a lot of mail from people, then, who told me they enjoyed seeing a human being up there, reacting, making mistakes, being open about it. I was open about my mistakes when it wasn't cool to be open, and Tom didn't like that kind of stuff. On this new show, I'll be able to react as much as I like. And when I pull a boner, you'll know about it ... from me.''
Hartley says she used her experience on the ``Today'' show in her series ``Goodnight Beantown,'' in which she played a news anchorwoman. ``But we lost the edge in the relationship [with co-star Bill Bixby] too soon, and it became too cosy. So, `Today' and `Beantown' were preparation for `The Morning Program.'''
She is especially grateful to producer Bob Shanks for allowing her some input. ``For the first time in my life, my instincts as a performer are being considered and trusted. I suggest things, and Bob is often amenable. There was one particular segment I didn't like, and we fought about it, and when Bob told me we were dropping it, tears came to my eyes when I said, `Thank you.'''
``I think I know what middle America enjoys seeing. I want our show to be fresh and spontaneous and infectious. I think we managed to get a lot of that feeling in the Polaroid commercials with Jimmy Garner. That was the first time I felt it in my performances.''
Hartley says she hopes to air segments on subjects of special concern to her - things such as child molestation, alcoholism, and suicide. ``I've been able to survive a lot of things, and I am especially interested in survivor stories.'' Asked if those aren't the stories other showsdo , she says, ``Yes, but we will take the humanistic rather than the journalistic approach.''
Hartley expects one of the star performers on the show to be her dog, Daisy, a six-year-old golden retriever.
Does Daisy do anything except sit there? Hartley giggles. ``Well, yesterday she messed up the rug. But she has three facial expressions: anger, a hangover look, and a frisky look. But mostly she just goes to sleep. The family really gets into the act. We plan to have my 11-year-old son, Sean, drive a $12,500 Ferrari from F.A.O. Schwartz onto the set. He did not get that for Christmas.''
Hartley and her husband, Patrick Boyriven, have an 8-year-old daughter as well. They've just moved from California to a town house not far from the studio, so Hartley can sleep till almost 4:30 a.m. and still make it to work on time.
Three of Hartley's heroes are television newswomen: Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters, and Jane Pauley. ``Diane is sensational, and there's no better interviewer than Barbara. ... And Jane Pauley gets up and does that show day after day with dignity and decorum. She takes a lot on that male-oriented set. Linda Ellerbee says she wants to be Jane Pauley when she grows up.''
There will be many celebrity interviews, but the one she would like most to do is with Geraldine Ferarro. ``Her story is not being told. I would like to find out as a woman what's going on in her life now, how she is surviving her ordeals.''
What would Hartley like for the world to know about her new show?
``That Rolland Smith is not a patsy, and we are not misusing him in any way. That I am not a fluff. That we are planning a very balanced show with spontaneous, light-hearted humor and some little quips now and then. But basically we are an informational show.''
As we leave, I try to think of something to say that will reassure this charming and vulnerable human being, without compromising my response to the show. ``Mariette,'' I say, ``if the success of this show depends upon millions of viewers loving you, then there's nothing for you to worry about.'' That seems to please her.