‘CBS This Morning’ brings audience on set in A.M. experiment

Stay out of Gayle King’s way on Wednesday morning.

As the clock approaches 8 a.m. tomorrow, King and her “CBS This Morning” co-hosts, Anthony Mason and Tony Doukopil, will have to whisk themselves from their home studio to another one at the multi-tiered New York broadcast facility that hosts their program. They will have to climb several floors and scamper down long hallways. Upon arrival, they will find something that has not been a staple of their morning broadcast: a live, in-studio crowd. Guests including Karamo Brown, Cynthia Germanotta and Jane Pauley will be on hand to discuss mental health awareness with a hand-picked audience that will include people who have had their own dealings with mental health challenges.

“It will be a bit of a run for our anchors, but we have some TV tricks up our sleeves to make sure they have time to get there,” says Diana Miller, the A.M. program’s executive producer, in an interview. “We have mapped out a path multiple times. We know which elevators to hold.”

The CBS morning show is experimenting with a new format at a time when there is pressure on many of the broadcast A.M. programs to keep early-day viewers hooked. All three big-broadcast programs – ABC’s “Good Morning America,” NBC’s “Today” and CBS’ “CBS This Morning” – lost audience last year. CBS continues to lag its two main competitors.

The CBS program’s challenge has been intensified by a change in the anchor team made earlier this year. King, who helped CBS gain more traction in a morning slot where it has traditionally lagged, is now accompanied by Mason, a veteran who has covered everything from business to music, and Doukopil, a former “CBS Sunday Morning” contributor.

The live audience, says Miller, who was named executive producer in April of this year, shows how quickly the show’s new team has come together. “We are pretty lucky to have two hours every morning, and we are really anxious to push the envelope as to how we use it.”

Many news outlets are testing new formats that bring a live audience into the mix, a move that plays with the decades-old anchor-and-a-desk standard that has been the hallmark of TV news broadcasts for decades. The second hour of ABC’s “Good Morning America” relies on a crowd in the studio as anchors like Michael Strahan or Lara Spencer hold forth. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes has been examining his performance with a live audience on Friday nights in a studio that once housed Megyn Kelly’s morning program. CNN has ramped up its use of “town halls” during which Democratic candidates discuss topics such as climate change. And Fox News Channel brings a live crowd to its “Fox & Friends” once a month.

The idea for this forum was sparked back in early summer, says Miller. “We have so many stories we report on every day about the threat of people facing mental health challenges,” she says, whether they encompass school bullying or suicide attempts by first responders. A team of producers approached her about devoting a single show to the subject. As they considered approaches, many felt a program would be served best with conversations.

“We wanted to be more involved than just typical guest segments, and we wanted our anchors to be able to interact with as many people as possible,” Miller says.

Coverage of the topic will not be limited to “CBS This Morning” that day. “CBS Evening News” will also devote time to the challenges of mental health, Miller says, and correspondent Vladimir Duthiers will “carry the conversation” to CBSN, the company’s live-streaming news outlet.

Viewers probably should not expect to see a live audience on every broadcast, suggests Miller. Wednesday’s visitors aren’t “an audience for audience’s sake,”she says, but rather a “community” of attendees interested in a particular topic. Will “CBS This Morning” curate others? “We will see,” she adds. “We certainly will leave the door open.”