NEW YORK - Bryant Gumbel is polishing the opening to Public Eye.
He stands center stage on the Public Eye set at CBS' Broadcast Center as cameras gracefully stalk him. The tape is rolling as he guides things along.
"From (Camera) Five to Four to Two," Mr. Gumbel says, following their roving angles on a monitor. "And then we look at Two and we say, `Welcome to the first edition of Public Eye, a program that we hope will become a regular viewing habit,"' and blah blah blah and cut.
A moment later, the tape is played back.
"The main thing we want," says Mr. Gumbel, "is that Four's move doesn't look rushed." He addresses Camera Four: "Take your own sweet damn time."
Tonight at 9 (WRDW, Channel 12) Public Eye with Bryant Gumbel premieres, joining CBS News magazines 60 Minutes and 48 Hours, not to mention seven more hours of prime-time magazines on ABC and NBC.
This abundance might give any newcomer pause.
All the more so when you consider the brutal time slot Public Eye will occupy (facing 3rd Rock from the Sun and Drew Carey, to name just two rivals).
All the more so when you remember news magazines' stratospheric casualty rate (Mr. Gumbel's executive producer, Michael Rubin, had the same job on past CBS short-timers Coast to Coast and America Tonight).
And especially if you ponder this: No matter how successful it eventually became, every magazine show endured a punishing launch.
"History is pretty clear," notes Mr. Gumbel during a chat with a reporter in his office. "New magazines all have tremendous difficulties drawing an audience. They all get bounced around the schedule.
"But the upside is, if you tell good stories and exercise patience, they prevail and do very well."
And to judge from 60 Minutes, 20/20 and PrimeTime Live, they last just about forever.
As Mr. Gumbel would sum it up: Take your own sweet damn time.
Until he left NBC in January, this was a man who helped the nation face morning for 15 years as anchor of Today. Now about to go weekly and nocturnal at CBS, Mr. Gumbel has been counting the days until opening night.
There will have been a handful of technical rehearsals but no start-to-finish dress. That's because Public Eye is designed to air principally live and unrehearsed. It's the sort of television Mr. Gumbel has always preferred, especially the live interviews he will feature. It's the sort of television he feels he's best at.
"We'll be live for the sake of being able to complement some of our taped pieces in a fashion that other (magazine shows) can't," he explains. "We're doing live with the intention of having a degree of energy and passion and spontaneity in the format."
So tonight, two days after his 49th birthday, Mr. Gumbel will discover Public Eye right along with his audience. And, of course, right along with the critics.
"I can probably guess at certain pieces that will be written October 2nd," he says with a knowing smile: "`A noble attempt, but misguided.' `... And he told us this was going to be different.' `He should have stayed home!'
"That's OK. Besides, I don't view October 1st as the finished product, but the beginning. I'm not so hardheaded as to say that on October 8th I won't change it. I would hope that the tenth show would look a lot different than the first."
His stable of correspondents includes Bernard Goldberg, Peter Van Sant, Alison Stewart, Derek McGinty and Maggie Cooper.
But Public Eye, Mr. Gumbel says, will reflect a single sensibility - his own - to a degree no other magazine show except 60 Minutes and its producer-patriarch Don Hewitt can match. Or, after prime time, Nightline with its anchor-auteur Ted Koppel.
"Public Eye is intimately tied to who I am and what I'm about," Mr. Gumbel says.
Just consider the set in Studio 45, which depicts a sort of fortress with blond woodwork and marble floor, frosted-glass skylights and windows that gaze across the East River and beyond. The predominant color is a rich, no-nonsense green. Now consider the paint maker's name for this shade: Contemplation.
"I'm not trying to be highbrow," Mr. Gumbel goes on. "But I'm not going to get down in the gutter ... just because it happens to be a good story. What I'm going to try to do is tell good stories in what I think is an intelligent and entertaining and informative fashion. I think people will enjoy that."
and had their fill of interviews with former O.J. Simpson intimates and unsettling reports on ever-more-exotic lifethreatening conditions.
The audience knows that, above all, Mr. Gumbel is a suffer-nofools kind of guy. Maybe he can mount a suffer-no-foolishness kind of broadcast.
In any case, he says he's been turned loose to mount the show he wants to do.
"They've given me pretty much of a green light, pretty much left me alone," says Mr. Gumbel, meaning by "they" the CBS bigs. "There's been no meddling at all that I would point to.
"And, oddly enough, nobody has ever talked to me about ratings."
Maybe they don't have to. Even with his five-year contract, "I'm just like Gregory Hines and David Caruso and all the rest of 'em," he says, naming fellow CBS recruits - "trying to prove ourselves in the prime-time menu.
"We're sailing off," says Mr. Gumbel, flashing his damn-the-torpedoes smile, "and the world may