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television: Monkey Business

Morning "news" programs deliver little more than shameless promos for books, movies and sometimes even the network's other shows.

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And Clayson left the show in late September for other CBS assignments. She told the Washington Post rather more than she might have intended when she said, "I'm going back to what I feel is good, solid journalism." (CBS can't seem to get mornings right no matter what it tries.)

But what do the viewers get for watching the shows that rake in all those big bucks?

Not much. Mostly drivel, in fact, with an occasional hard-news story thrown in so that the anchors can maybe hold their heads up when they're hobnobbing with real journalists.

If you don't turn on the set before 7:30 a.m., you'll likely miss what little hard news there is in these two-hour, misnamed morning "news" blocks (three hours on NBC, which just means an extra hour of idiocy). All three cram the opening minutes with legitimate news stories, but when 7:30 a.m. rolls around, journalism rolls out the door, and the airwaves are filled with promos for movies, books and television programs; embarrassingly simplistic "health" reports; a feature or two that might make a good cover story for a supermarket tabloid; and other bizarre programming, such as the "Today" show's annual summer wedding, or CBS' recent five-day series on people trying to break into the Guinness record book. It makes you wonder what that did for Guinness sales — or the once-fresh and now-tired "Where in the World is Matt Lauer?" stunt on NBC.

People do watch the morning shows, however, and if there's a discernible reason it's the hosts — the female anchors, to be specific. The male hosts are little more than space fillers. On "Today," it's Katie Couric, everybody's girl next door, who can "connect" (in show-biz terms) like nobody since Bishop Sheen, although the good bishop never giggled as I recall. Sawyer "connects" too over on ABC, although not as well as Couric. Her forte is "concern," whether for an abduction victim or an "American Idol" who didn't make the cut. As for Clayson on CBS, well, she's still trying to figure out who's going to be sharing the anchor-couch with her, and/or whether she herself can stand it for another week.

The guests that parade in front of us all seem to have a public-relations agenda. NBC is the worst offender. During a single recent week, Matt and Katie interviewed celebrities about their movies, their books, their CDs, their magazine articles and -most egregiously — about TV shows airing on NBC. But CBS has nothing to brag about. In one week last month, two different guests on the "Early Show" capitalized on Princess Di's death, one to promote a tell-all book and another to promote a CBS movie. And a multipart "Meet Your Date" series, not surprisingly, shed far more heat than light. ABC offended least, which is not to say not at all. Guests for Charlie and Diane to talk at included "America Idol" finalists, John Travolta declaring "It's safe to fly again," a promoter for a National Geographic TV special and an expert on how to survive an encounter with a bear. (The best advice from the bear expert: "Don't have an encounter with a bear.")

But the big bucks are pouring in for NBC and ABC, although less so for distant runner-up CBS. Therefore, don't expect any big changes. As the popular wisdom goes, "If it ain't broke, don't break it."

As for CBS, anchorless and adrift in the morning maelstrom, how long do you think it'll be before somebody comes up with a plan to recycle the idea of having a chimp as a co-host? The first guest would seem to be a natural: The human host could interview an expert on how to survive an encounter with a chimp. I've heard they bite when the ratings sag. S

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