07/02/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT
NBC (Weekdays, 7 A.M. ET)
Updated grade: C
When Deborah Norville replaced Jane Pauley last January, viewers reacted as if Corky had just usurped Murphy Brown's chair in a violent coup d'état.
Now, with ratings plummeting, NBC has come up with a desperate strategy of damage control: Throw everything at the wall and hope something sticks. So we get old favorites (Joe Garagiola), new faces (Faith Daniels and Katie Couric), more news, more happy banter, more music and less Norville, who has been placed in the role of villain in this tedious morning soap opera. All the enforced joviality, which gives Today the tone of a bad local news team, is hardest on Bryant Gumbel and Norville because their natural images are of frosty competence. The chuckle-filled warming trend makes them seem only tepid. And if I hear one more joke about baldness from Garagiola or Willard, I swear I'll scream.
The accepted wisdom about morning shows is that you want to foster a feeling of easy familiarity—to make the on-air personalities seem like family to the audience. NBC's fixes fail utterly in this regard. Why bring back Garagiola, last seen on the program in 1973, as a part-time co-anchor (Tuesday to Thursday)? It makes the week inconsistent and lopsided. And wasn't the whole idea to have someone there on Mondays—when Bryant sometimes doesn't make it back from the golf circuit?
Though Daniels is a strong addition to the bench, the show has just become too busy. While the busyness reinforces Gumbel's preeminent role (someone has to direct traffic), his patrician air has always been a liability. Look, there's no one on television more efficient or better prepared than Bryant Gumbel, but the fact is that viewers, especially women viewers, just don't go for his Autocrat-of-the-Breakfast-Table routine.