Charles Osgood finds a new generation of squares hep to his old-fashioned 'Sunday Morning' style
"I've been on a lot of shows," Mo Rocca was saying from his tiny, windowless office at CBS News' West 57th Street headquarters on a recent afternoon. "And there's something about the intensity with which people respond to 'Sunday Morning' …. People feel very strongly about the show."
On this rainy Thursday in early January, Rocca was dressed in a white pullover and brightly colored Nikes, sitting at his desk and talking about "CBS Sunday Morning," on which he was recently named a correspondent after five years of on-air contributions.
At 42, Rocca has gone from parodying reporters on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" to being a reporter whose beat is elastic enough to include stories about male Spanx and people who walk their cats.
"It crosses a certain line where people say, 'I love that show, I used to watch it with my grandfather,'" he said. "I can't think of much downside to that. In television now, where things change so quickly for the most inconsequential reasons, there's a lot to be said for stability."
"Stable" is definitely one word to describe "Sunday Morning," the news program that's been a friendly guest in the homes of millions of Americans since its debut in 1979. While the weekday morning shows experience periodic shakeups and the nightly news has seen more drama over the last decade than the few soap operas left on air, "Sunday Morning" has remained constant, from the leisurely pace of its stories to the folksy yet cultured tone it strikes throughout. And, somehow, its audience has, too.
One journalist described "Sunday Morning" as "the tube's version of a well-edited, literate Sunday-morning newspaper whose style, content, and on-camera 'editor' produce a blend of the down-home and urbane, the video product of a cross-pollination of the New York Times with William Allen White's Emporia, Kansas, 'Gazette.'"
What's most telling about the above description is the fact that it was made in 1981 by Richard West in New York magazine, but could easily describe the show as it airs today. As it has moved into the 21st Century, one might be tempted to add Buzzfeed or Boing Boing to that mix West described, what with meme-chasing stories about news auto-tuners the Gregory Brothers and the ur-geek board game Settlers of Catan reaching beyond the show's graying demographic to a younger audience that likely never watches the news, much less 90 minutes of the stuff at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning.
A typical episode of the show conspicuously mixes high and low as well as square and hip, and yet strikes a remarkably even tone. Take the Nov. 6th broadcast, which featured a profile of Kim Cattrall, a look at Florence and the Machine, and an examination of the nuisance posed by leaf blowers. All told a pretty typical episode of Sunday Morning, but somehow one that spiked viewership to the highest it's been in five years according to Broadcasting and Cable. For a show that's changed so little in the last 30 years, Sunday Morning manages to keep bringing in new viewers. Add in the show's iPad app and amped-up social media profile, and you've got a formula for grooming a new generation of viewers.
According to Rocca, every time someone in their twenties approaches him, they say exactly the same thing: I must be the youngest viewer.
"For some reason these people all think they're the only person under 50 watching the show."
If only. A perusal of Twitter and Tumblr reveals an ardent mini demo amid the retirees listening for the side effects of the COPD treatments and contemplating a Perillo tour of Italy. There are sites like Faces of Sunday Morning, whose creator, LaToya Rogers, describes her mission as follows: "I love the CBS show, Sunday Morning, between segments & commercials they show a picture of the sun. I plan to capture at least 3 of those faces every Sunday for a year." (Rogers isn't the only one obsessed with the sun logos, which began as a tribute to a German graphic design book called The Sun in Art: longtime host Charles Osgood's office is decorated in part by a viewer-submitted sun needlepoint and the show's About Us section on CBSNews.com has a call for submissions.) It seems that a Sunday doesn't go by without someone tweeting something a long the lines of "Snuggling with the cat, got my newspaper and CBS Sunday morning on--perfect Sunday!" (Jennifer Bringle, a North Carolina-based editor and writer) or "watching @CBSSunday the best Sunday morning ritual ever" (Audrey Irvine, U.S. editor of CNN.com).
There's something about "Sunday Morning"'s slow, sane pace that acts as a palliative to the hyped-up tone of much else found on TV; the show's handmade look (the on-screen graphics recall nothing so much as those seen on bowling alley scoring systems) is a welcome break from the data barrage of cable news. While much else on TV feels like pandering of one sort or another, the broadly inclusive tone of, say, Bill Geist's report on the Iowa State Fair, offers a reprieve from being so damn cool, a little rest from the wearying job of knowingness itself. How appropriate that it airs on Sunday, the day of rest.
Personally, I was turned on to the show by my most relentlessly stylish friends, the kind of people who buy $21 shelter magazines from Europe and tune in each week between smoking the bees in their backyard apiary and making homemade yogurt. For viewers like that, "Sunday Morning" seems to exist on a continuum with "RadioLab" and "This American Life," which, while on radio, draw listeners who probably never listen to the radio.
Far from making them uncool, these shows' fusty, legacy trappings (what is "This American Life," after all, if not a new take on the quaint human interest "slice of life" stories that were once a staple of the local Sunday paper?) create a kind of authenticity, a grownup-feeling depth that's lacking in so much else out there. This is probably why former New York Times TV correspondent Peter J. Boyer described "Sunday Morning" as "antitelevision" in his 1988 book on CBS, "designed to be so compelling and thoughtful that it would be watched 'by people who don't watch television.'"
Like tuning into NPR, knitting and canning, watching "Sunday Morning" is one of the very few and particular activities that can be enjoyed by little old ladies in Dubuque and their grandkids in Williamsburg. If there's another show on television that manages to speak so equivocally to hipsters and those with hip replacements, I've yet to see it—and I have cable.
"My challenge each week is coming up with the right mix of stories that gives every age group something to look forward to," Rand Morrison, the show's executive producer since 1999, told me. "You don't want to turn your backs on the older folks and you also don't want to ignore younger people who are first finding out about 'Sunday Morning.'"
Describing the show's consistency of tone—what New York's West called "a perfect combination of content, setting, mood, and personality"—Morrison says, "It is by design that we try to make the pace of the show really easy. We're aided by Charlie Osgood, who's such a joy, because it's really his sensibility. The Charlie you see on TV is the Charlie you see in real life."
Around the corner and down the hall from Morrison's office (in place of a traditional nameplate on the door, there's a piece of masking tape bearing the name "Godot," on account of everyone waiting for him), is Osgood's office, cluttered with mementos and decorated with fan art and pictures of his family.
In real life, Osgood does indeed display the same grandfatherly warmth he does on the show, minus his signature bow-tie. Host since 1994 (before him, Charles Kuralt held the job), Osgood, 79, combines newsman gravitas with twinkly-eyed whimsy, and is equally at ease introducing a serious story as he is playing banjo or reciting poetry on air. "I try to be relaxed and not stentorian in any kind of way," he says. "I'm now at an age when I don't have to try to look grown up."
Osgood recently signed a three year contract and seems amused by the fact that he'll be hosting "Sunday Morning" at 81. (A friend recently told him "81 is the new 78," which still gives Osgood a chuckle.) The rapport he's developed with viewers—just behind his desk is a postcard written in what looks like elementary school handwriting that reads, "Charles Osgood is the best dude on television"—is borne out of of mutual respect and a shared sense of wonder about the world. From state fairs to cats on leashes, as long as Osgood and his reporters tell their stories in a a calm, reassuring manner, viewers will continue to set aside their Sunday papers and beekeepers' helmets to watch.
"I try to remember we're in people's homes at a time when they're probably in their bathrobes and bedroom slippers having a cup of coffee," Osgood says. "It's a time when some of the political shows, I won't name any, are full of people yelling a lot.
"I don't think yelling at people in their homes on Sunday morning goes over very well."
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error an earlier version of this article mistakenly identified Kevin Prince as social media director for "Sunday Morning." He is working on the weekday morning program. We regret the error.