For Gayle King, being Oprah Winfrey’s best friend has its privileges — and some obligations.
One of them was alerting Winfrey, an avid reader, to what was happening on television.
“They used to call me ‘Gayle King, Eyewitness News’ because I’d call and say, ‘Oprah, turn on the TV, O.J. is on the run,’ ” King recalled. “She once said, ‘There’s this show Friends, have you heard of it? They’re coming to me and asking if I want them on the show.’ I was always her touchstone for what was going on in the world.”
These days Winfrey is getting her updates from King along with the 3.7 million viewers who watch her on CBS This Morning, which is celebrating five years on the air this week.
At 62, King has reached a new pinnacle in a four-decade career by becoming a morning TV star alongside co-anchors Charlie Rose and Norah O’Donnell. She recently signed a lucrative long-term deal to remain with the program, which launched with the bold claim that “The News Is Back in the Morning.”
King recalls how some critics believed the positioning of the show as a smarter alternative to NBC’s Today and ABC’s Good Morning America was ambitious and perhaps a bit audacious.
“We had a lot of haters and a lot of naysayers,” she said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen.”
But along with the ratings growth that CBS This Morning has experienced — up 45 percent since its first year — King says she knows that the program has lived up to its promise. Her friends who work for the competition tell her so.
“They’ll say, ‘It’s so frustrating to see what you’re doing compared to what we’re doing,’ ” King said. “Friends from other networks, including executives, have all come to me at different times to say, ‘I like what you guys are doing, I wish we were doing more of it.’ ”
Such candor is common from King. She is freewheeling when it comes to talking about her own life. She doesn’t shy away from discussing her age. She posts on Instagram about her weight. She admits to having changed the spelling of her name from Gail because she liked the way it looked with a “y” and an “e.” (“Don’t you think Gayle is a prettier spelling?” she asks.)
Reports of her being the most outspoken anchor at a post-election gathering of media heavyweights at Trump Tower with President-elect Donald Trump were accurate, she notes.
It’s King’s willingness to speak her mind that adds a what-will-she-say-next tension to CBS This Morning and has people like former Today co-anchor Bryant Gumbel watching.
“You watch her and you can see there is no guile,” said Gumbel, host of HBO’s Real Sports. “Her edit button, like mine, doesn’t work. My edit button doesn’t work in an acerbic way. Her edit button doesn’t work in a nice way.
“Sometimes she says things that make me laugh out loud. She’s a good person, and she has natural curiosity and natural enthusiasm.”
When CBS This Morning was being conceived, the network’s news executives believed King’s ebullient personality and pop culture savvy would balance the gravitas of Rose, well-known to viewers through 60 Minutes and his sober talk show that airs on PBS stations (O’Donnell joined CBS This Morning later).
Neither Rose nor King had a track record in morning television or working in an ensemble setting, and CBS had never had a real success against Today and GMA. But Chris Licht, who developed and produced CBS This Morning, was sold on King, having used her as a highly prepared and engaging guest on the MSNBC program Morning Joe.
“There isn’t a focus group in America that would have put Charlie Rose and Gayle King together,” said Licht, now executive producer of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. “It’s not as crazy as it looks on paper.
“They knew each other. They traveled in the same circles and would see each other at the same events,” he said. “They are both at the same place in their lives where they are comfortable in their own skin.”
The show launched with King joining midway at 8 a.m. as Licht believed a three-anchor setup would slow the pace of the news-intensive first hour. But his second in command, Ryan Kadro, now executive producer of CBS This Morning, pushed to have King at the top of the program as it became apparent she was comfortable across all subject areas.
“Charlie liked it, and Norah liked it, and we never looked back,” Licht said.
King, who had been hosting a talk show on Winfrey’s OWN network before joining CBS, did have to make some adjustments. She is so at ease with expressing her opinions that she’s had to learn to restrain herself when straight reporting is required.
When told there are viewers who sense she is holding back sometimes, she laughs.
“Yes, Gayle is,” she said. “That is true. I know that it’s a news program. I also know I’m a human being. I’m not a robot. We’re not talking to robots. To me, sometimes it’s OK to have a human emotion or human reaction.”