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The Good Life

CBS Sunday Morning: The Greatest Show on Television

A program that always seems to lift us up, rather than tear things down, might be just what we all need right now
By Gregory Mottola | From CBS Sunday Morning, May/June 2020
CBS Sunday Morning: The Greatest Show on Television
Photo/John Paul Filo/CBS © 2016

Every Sunday morning, as most of the major television network and cable news organizations are arguing about politics and clogging up the airwaves with more partisan rhetoric than we can process, there’s one program that’s clearly different. It refrains from stoking rage and panic and actually seeks to engage its viewers with measured doses of culture and optimism rather than divide them into political camps.

The skeptic in you might not believe it, but such programming does indeed exist. It’s not found on the preachy airwaves of public television, it’s certainly not on cable and you can’t binge watch it on Netflix. Here’s a hint: the show has been on the air for more than 40 years, it attracts more than 5 million viewers per episode and it has ranked No. 1 in its time slot for more than a decade.

The show in question is “CBS Sunday Morning,” and it’s driven by an ethos of optimism that mainstream media has long abandoned. If you’re not tuning in every weekend with your cup of coffee and first cigar of the day, you’re missing some of the best general-interest journalism that television has to offer.

“We dreamed up a program about music and art and nature,” said the show’s co-founder and first host Charles Kuralt in an interview from years ago. “Because of its necessary preoccupation with politics and wars and calamities, television journalism doesn’t get around to those gentler subjects very often.”

Those “gentler subjects” came to be the show’s main attraction and the primary reason why it’s been on the air for so long. Each episode is a series of segments that highlights everything from art and music to the glamorous lives of the famous to the tragedies and triumphs of the average American nobody.

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“Triumph” is the key word here. “CBS Sunday Morning” has been running for more than four decades, and the secret of its success isn’t really much of a secret. The stories are uplifting and the tone stays positive. Always. It’s as though the show is adhering to a self-imposed code for socially redeeming content, which isn’t a bad thing, especially now when the news of the day is so dreary. 

The stories found on this show feel neither forced nor contrived, and therein lies the show’s natural beauty. Here, tone is everything. No matter how dire the narrative or how severe the subject matter, the story always concludes on a high note. Go one or two channels up, and you’re clobbered with the rancor of skewed analysts and combative pundits, all of whom seem to derive satisfaction from pointing fingers and placing blame. But on “CBS Sunday Morning,” every tragedy has a bright side, every sadness somehow reconciled. For 90 minutes every week, CBS corners the market on optimism and redemption.

The show’s tranquil approach to news has changed little since its first season in 1979. Every episode opens with the same bright and bubbly theme song, “Abblasen,” a baroque trumpet fanfare played by Wynton Marsalis. The host, the affable Jane Pauley (only the third person to serve in that role) begins the morning with the major headlines of the week before the day’s features are digitally rendered onscreen in friendly fonts like a table of contents. Cover stories and profiles are then turned over to the show’s correspondents and presented in relaxed long form, each segment taking its time.

Like the homilies and sermons of a Sunday morning service, the show’s delivery is calming and familiar. There are celebrity profiles, such as aging rock stars looking back on their careers (Huey Lewis, Elton John) or young rock stars looking forward (Billie Eilish, Ed Sheeran). Stories of small-town America are told as parable, and remind us that in between cities, there are still dirt-road communities with old-time values.

Other quaint segments are ceremoniously administered like the Almanac, which tells of a notable event that happened the same day as the broadcast. Screen shots of fascinating facts pop up between commercials much like sidebars in a magazine. Then, there’s the closing scene, which is the show’s signature moment of nature, where the viewer is left with a contemplative landscape of anything from a snowy field of grazing caribou to wild flowers blowing in the spring breeze.

CBS

The basic format of the show has hardly deviated since episode one and neither has its appearance. The broadcast didn’t turn high-def until 2009, the set didn’t get a makeover until 2017, and even still, the changes were subtle. A bit refreshed, maybe, with new presentation points and integrated LED lighting that changes with the mood, but, at the same time, instantly recognizable with its upright glass panels and trademark sun logos. 

“From the very beginning, ‘Sunday Morning’ has stayed true to Charles Kuralt’s vision, to make sure those gentler subjects got their due,” Pauley said in the 40th anniversary episode, which aired on January 27, 2019. “We travel the back roads, taking our audience places, showing them things they wouldn’t see anywhere else.”

"Good morning. Here begins something new,” said Kuralt, introducing the first episode of the show on January 28, 1979. “Every Sunday morning we’re going to bring you the news of course but we’re going to spend most of this hour and a half together trying to explain what’s happening. To ourselves and to you.”

From the beginning, the show sought out the uplifting. Such topics aren’t quite as easy to politicize, which is why we need them as much today as we did in 1979 when “CBS Sunday Morning” premiered. Remember, as the ’70s wrapped up, American television audiences were still traumatized by the steady stream of graphic combat footage that invaded their living rooms through the nightly news in a way that no one had ever experienced before. Yes, the Vietnam War was over by 1979, but we had become a
cynical audience in its wake, and there was plenty of pressing news that year to keep us on edge—the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, the school shootings at Cleveland Elementary in San Diego and the Iran hostage crisis, to name a few. Much as it is today, good news seemed a rarity. 

“It’s unsophisticated, isn’t it, to admire your subject?” Kuralt once asked rhetorically, in an interview with future host Charles Osgood. “You’re supposed to investigate your subject and have a healthy skepticism about what he says. I suspended my skepticism a long time ago. It’s so much more fun, though unsophisticated, maybe even unprofessional in a journalist, it’s so much more fun to just sit there and enjoy the guy and learn a few things.” 

Kuralt spent 15 years as the show’s host and anchor, touring small towns highlighting the quirks and brilliance of their inhabitants until his retirement in 1994 at nearly 60 years old. On April 10 of that year, he was replaced by Charles Osgood, whose trademark bowtie and soothing voice eased his viewers into a new era of the show—one that could perhaps appeal to GenXers as much as it did the Babyboomers. 

For those who can remember, Osgood’s maiden episode stuck to the same format, a nostalgic style of journalism that predated the angry counterculture of the 1960s. Like something out of The Saturday
Evening Post
, Osgood’s first episode included doctors who still made house calls, a segment on the U.S. Army’s WWII ski patrol and making maple syrup in Maine.

Before you dismiss “CBS Sunday Morning” as nothing more than sappy programming for seniors, you should know that, according to Nielsen ratings, it places first in its time slot for the 25- to 54-year-old demographic, beating out all the political and news talk shows of Sunday morning. In that age group, the show has enjoyed this top spot for 178 consecutive weeks. Taking all age groups into account, “CBS Sunday Morning” has spent 582 consecutive weeks at No. 1. That’s more than 11 years as the category leader. In 2019, it won its fourth daytime Emmy award.

Pauley, who took over as host in 2016, maintains the same tradition as Osgood and Kuralt. If you tuned in on Sunday, March 1—you know, the one where Mo Rocca interviewed Vanna White and Luke Burbank visited Hamilton, Missouri, the quilting capital of the world—you would have been one of nearly 5.8 million viewers watching along, with more than 1 million falling in that 25 to 54 age bracket.

These numbers aren’t terribly surprising if you consider the encyclopedic scope of the reporting. Part of the show’s aim is to engross you in subjects you didn’t even know you were interested in, like the closing of London’s White Chapel bell foundry after 450 years in business. Or the making of the Vince Lombardi NFL trophy, which Tony Dokoupil explained is produced by Tiffany & Co. and crafted entirely of sterling silver on a show that aired February 2, the same day of the Super Bowl.

What’s equally appealing is the show’s democratic handling of all its subjects. Everyone gets equal billing no matter the level of fame, so celebrities like Taylor Swift or Ralph Lauren are treated with the same respect as the folksy residents of middle America you’ve never heard of. These people haven’t sold out arenas or written best-sellers or come up with a cure for anything. They’re just ordinary individuals who have shown extraordinary acts of kindness, resilience or eccentricity. 

It’s impossible to include every memorable segment, but a few will always stand out. For example, the episode where a child with autism and Down syndrome would stop in front of a neighbor’s house every day just to watch an American flag blow in the breeze. Intrigued, the homeowner noticed and built a bench for the boy to sit. “Norman Rockwell couldn’t have imagined a more uniquely American moment,” mused Steve Hartman, perhaps one of the most sentimental correspondents on CBS. 

Hartman also brought us the story of Sgt. Jeff Turney, a police officer who got a most unusual call concerning an elderly man intent on driving himself 2,200 miles from Glendale, Arizona to Ft. Myers, Florida. “I have a 94-year-old father,” said a distressed voice on the call to dispatch. “He’s loaded up a trailer and thinks he can drive his vehicle and the trailer to Florida. I’d like to have somebody talk to him if they could.” Sgt. Turney responded to the home of Howard Benson, a WWII navy veteran who refused to change his mind. “There was no stopping him,” Turney said. The officer helped Benson pack his trailer, and then truly went above and beyond his call of duty. On his own personal vacation time, 

Turney drove the elderly veteran to his new assisted living home in Florida and stayed there with him until he settled in to his new surroundings. “I’ve never seen a person so dedicated to helping people in my life,” Benson said, wearing his veteran’s cap. “I can’t thank that gentleman enough.”

Then there’s the nearly unbelievable story of how a Vietnam soldier was quite literally brought back from the dead. After being shot four times under heavy fire in 1968, John Colone was tagged, bagged and sent to the morgue. But a conscientious lieutenant who worked at the battalion aid station took extra steps to make sure every last body that came through his doors was no longer alive, even if labeled “dead on arrival.”

He unzipped Colone’s body bag and found that the “corpse” was actually living after all. Colone survived the war, and now, every Memorial Day, with a tinge of survivor’s guilt, he lays flowers at the graves of everyone in his battalion who didn’t make it home alive. That’s more than $8,000 worth of flowers to decorate more than 160 graves. Everyone likes a story like that, especially when it’s true. Naturally, the show has a soft spot for veterans and the elderly.

And let’s not forget the time “CBS Sunday Morning” went to Havana to highlight Cuban cigars. Nearly every media outlet goes out of its way to demonize cigar smoking and anything vaguely related to tobacco, completely disregarding the cultural history and artisanship of the hobby. Not in this case. CBS reporter Mark Strassman spoke to Cigar Aficionado on a segment that aired on August 2, 2015, to talk about the merits of a handmade Cuban cigar and why they’re so prized by connoisseurs. 

“Whatever road we travel on, our goal remains the same,” Pauley said in 2019. “To take our viewers, all of you, wherever something remarkable is happening,”

The show has always been an affirmation that the human race is inherently good, or at least, inherently positive. But what of today? With the Coronavirus pandemic increasing at a frightening pace, the news hasn’t been this gloomy since the fall of the World Trade Center nearly 20 years ago. As this story went to print, CBS reporters and anchors were broadcasting from remote studios or on makeshift sets in their homes. Covid-19 has forced U.S. citizens to shutter themselves into isolation. We are now a nation of cocoons. Our hospitals are short on supplies and our country’s economy is disintegrating before our eyes. 

On the news, it’s Coronavirus coverage on a 24-hour cycle where special reports are interrupted by more special reports. Social media has only made the panic worse. Footage of manic shoppers fighting over the last pack of toilet paper doesn’t really help morale. But even the reality of a spreading pandemic has failed to darken the sunny disposition of “CBS Sunday Morning.” One of the first episodes to deal directly with this crisis aired on March 22, and the show didn’t point fingers or place blame. That’s for other programs with other agendas. Rather, there was a segment that showed how comedian Jim Gaffigan was able to find humor in self quarantine.

Later, celebrity chef Bobby Flay showed suggestions on cooking under lockdown, David Pogue showed us how to use Zoom for social video conferencing and Jill Schlesinger’s segment on the economy kept things upbeat by bringing attention to businesses that are thriving despite the pandemic. Dollar General, for example, is seeing a heightened demand for the essential products that it sells in its more than 16,000 stores across the country. The company was looking to hire 50,000 more employees by the end of April. 

Amidst news of blight and death, Dr. Jon LaPook still offered an encouraging prognosis, pointing to the fact that we may have much stronger immunity to this virus than first thought. “I’m not trying to sugarcoat this, but remember that about 80 percent of the time people have relatively mild cases. And I know I’ve said this before but I’ve got to repeat it again. This is going to have a beginning, a middle and an end. We are going to get through this, I promise. And we’re going to get through it together.” 

It was a small, but much welcome bit of good news.

Impartial media in its most idealistic sense might not exist, however this news program of “those gentler subjects” that Kuralt first cobbled together a generation or two ago just might be the closest thing to impartial journalism that exists on television today. This convincing brand of optimism and realism, two ideas that often seem mutually exclusive, is still faithfully produced in the weekly programming, making “CBS Sunday Morning” one of the best shows on the air of any genre. 

“No, the world is not ending,” said national correspondent Lee Cowan as he closed the show as calmingly as he could. “But we just might be getting a new start.”

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