Along the way, he's weathered "Operation Glass Slipper," the high-profile search for a compatible co-anchor that finally turned up 32-year-old Jane Clayson, a former ABC News correspondent who's nearly two decades younger than the 51-year-old Gumbel.
He's had his head shrunk by the New York Times Magazine in a story that caused a minor flap over Gumbel's veiled, slightly critical references to America's sweetheart, his former co-host Katie Couric. And, in recent weeks, he and Clayson have traveled to 14 cities - at one point hitting 11 in five days - to meet with local affiliates and reporters, meetings at which he's just naturally been encouraged to do most of the talking.
Starting today, with the 7 a.m. premiere of "The Early Show," Gumbel finally gets to put his mouth where CBS has put so much of its money.
If the money is astounding - and how can one not be astounded by a $30 million outlay for what boils down to windows and wires and polished wood? - the stakes are even more so.
Morning shows, once the poor relative of network news divisions, have become huge profit centers: two hours, with lots of commercials, playing to an audience that's growing even as the broadcast networks' prime-time audience is shrinking.
That's why ABC dragged in Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson to front "Good Morning America" and built them a huge studio above Times Square, why CBS, third in the morning for decades, was so eager to get the $5 million-a-year Gumbel back to morning TV, why NBC reportedly pays Couric $7 million a year.
"Morning television used to be something you did on the way up," said "Early Show" executive producer Steve Friedman. "You established yourself in mornings, then you went on to other things. . .But now. . .because of the dollars, because of the expanding audience, because of the shrinking ratings for the other stuff, morning has become more important, so you want bigger names."
Not that he doesn't think Clayson, a relative unknown until Friedman and Gumbel plucked her from hundreds of prospects, won't be a player.
"Television makes stars," Friedman said firmly. "Katie Couric was a Pentagon reporter before she got the opportunity to work on the `Today' show. She made the best of it, she learned from Bryant, she became a major star. Johnny Carson did a game show in the afternoon before he did the `Tonight' show, made the best of it, became a big star. Jane Pauley was in television, I think, three years, two of them on the air, before she got the `Today' show. She made the best of it, became a big star. The opportunity is there for Jane."
Friedman, who was executive producer at "Today" two different times, estimates that the NBC morning show, No. 1 for four years now, brings NBC a profit of about $125 million a year. Published reports peg it at closer to $175 million.
"What we'd like to do is get a third of what's out there," he said last week. "So if it's a $550 million pie, we'd like a third of it."
Even a narrower slice of that pie would make the cost of the show's Studio 58, in the Donald Trump-owned GM Building at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, look like pocket change.
But while much has been written about the "Today" show's street-level studio off Rockefeller Center and its role in pushing the show past "GMA" four years ago, no one's even pretending that a set, even one with a great view of the Plaza hotel and a magical window that switches from clear to opaque at the push of a button, can draw viewers all by itself.
"The sets are kind of the price of admission" these days, said Gumbel, who likens it to a city building a new stadium to attract or retain a ball club.
CBS president Leslie Moonves appears to believe that, anyway.
"I don't think Bryant would have done the show without Steve Friedman," Moonves said last week. "And I don't think either one of them would've done it without the studio."
Six days ago, when Friedman took reporters on a tour of the new set, the control room and studio appeared to be the only things likely to be completed in time for this morning's launch. A newsroom that will eventually include offices for Gumbel, Clayson and Friedman was still in the wallboard-and-wire stage. Until it's ready, some time after Thanksgiving, "Early Show" staffers will be stowing their gear five blocks away.
Friedman, who was in on the design of the "Today" show's studio, was gleeful about the control room, which looks exactly like every control room you've ever seen on television but is apparently much, much more expensive, thanks to the wonders of digital technology.
"You have a whole world at your disposal, and you have to be able to dial it up," he said.
It cost, he confided, twice as much as the "Today" control room (not that he'll say how much that was).
Friedman repeatedly reminded reporters that "Today" recently had a week in which it averaged only a 19 percent share of the audience - the "lowest in three years!" But if he can't stop digging at his old employer, Gumbel seems unable to start.
"Today" co-host Matt Lauer, who replaced him when he left the show in early 1997, is Gumbel's best friend and frequent golf partner. He continues to be friendly with many of his former colleagues at NBC.
Even his comments about Couric (referred to in the New York Times Magazine piece as "somebody who shall remain nameless") reveal little but a festering frustration at perhaps being held to a different standard than Couric when it comes to personal relationships.
"Look, I know everybody wants to write something terribly juicy, that it would be wonderful if we had a steel-cage match and everybody could tune in," Gumbel said last week. "I'm sure that's what everybody would like to write and hear. But you know, the simple truth is we had a good professional relationship. It was good for her, it was good for me."
When it comes to the competition with "Today," "I think Steve's more involved than I am," he said. (In a sign that Friedman's rivalry with "Today" probably won't be one-sided, the NBC show today will feature an outdoor concert by Mariah Carey, who was originally scheduled to appear on the "Early Show" premiere but who fled to "Today" when CBS ran into delays obtaining permits.)
Nor is Gumbel even watching the competition.
"I watch less than anyone in this room," he declared to a roomful of reporters. "I can tell you a lot about how `SportsCenter' works."
Which "SportsCenter" does he watch? "I get up early, and I'll go watch it alone before I leave to go to the gym. And then in the gym, because I work out about two hours, I'll watch it twice," he said.
Honest to what network suits might consider a fault, he wouldn't even pretend that he'd necessarily watch the show he's about to launch: "I'm not that kind of guy."
Nor is he superstitious. Reminded repeatedly about CBS's decades-long record of failure in the morning, Gumbel, on a trip to Philadelphia a few weeks ago, dismissed talk of a "curse."
"I don't believe in ghosts and curses," he said. "I think curses are the end result of the mistakes you make along the line. And CBS's problems for 30 years in the morning were twofold: No. 1, they couldn't get over the idea of what they did to `Captain Kangaroo'. . .that they axed `Captain Kangaroo' off the air and people hated them for it. . .But No. 2 is, they hadn't come to realize that Edward R. Murrow is dead. They were embarrassed to do a morning program.
"It was always, in a corporate sense. . .a zero priority. So the talent that came through, it was just a stopping-off point, until they could get a real job. Financial resources? Not available. News resources? `I'm sorry, we have real programs.' And so as a result it never, never had even an opportunity to compete. And so if you want to believe in a curse, that's the curse."
For those who do believe in curses, or at least in signs and omens, there are all sorts of ways to read CBS's morning future, launching as it is on the day after Halloween.
Maybe there's some promise in the fact that CBS, which once styled itself the Tiffany Network, now has a studio a block from Tiffany's, in a building owned by a man who named his youngest daughter Tiffany.
Those looking for darker signs, though, need go no farther than 48th Street and the Avenue of the Americas, where a vendor cart selling peanuts, almonds and cashews is sheltered by an umbrella advertising the new venture.
On one panel it reads "The Early Show." On the next, "Nuts!"
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