Winter 2019

Sunday Morning Ritual

Nora Gerard and her team work hard to give viewers the impression of a relaxed pace and a thoughtful mixture of soft features and hard news


CBS News Sunday Morning (Photo: Marcie Revens)

The first thing Nora Gerard does after arriving at Manhattan's CBS Broadcast Center every Sunday around 6 a.m. is embark on her circuitous rounds.

"I need to have face time with everybody," says Gerard, the director of the newsmagazine show, CBS News Sunday Morning. She first touches base with the executive producer. Then the graphics people. Then she heads downstairs to say hello and assess any issues with the hard news center before hiking two flights up to the stage crew, where she lingers to conduct some preliminary blocking.

Her last call, which comes after navigating a few more hallways within the byzantine layout of this W. 57th Street complex (it was once a dairy depot that cows were herded through), lands her in the dressing room of host Jane Pauley, seated in a high chair with one person blowing her hair and another applying makeup. This particular show, which aired Oct. 28, three days before Halloween, is holiday-centric. Pauley points to the appropriately mustard-colored outfit that she brought to wear.

"If it's too strange," she tells Gerard, "I have a backup that's black and white." Gerard, however, gives her a thumbs-up, chatting for another brief minute or so before saying, "I've got to go. But I'll be in your ear."

Director Nora Gerard (Photo: Marcie Revens)

Every show has its behind-the-scenes tenor. But CBS News Sunday Morning manifests one of the most serene, well-functioning and collegial working environments that one could expect for a news program, especially one with the staff so strewn about. Credit for that is due, in part, to Gerard's determination to be more than a disembodied voice on everyone's headsets.

"I see television completely as a team effort," she says. "All ideas are worth listening to."

Gerard, who was hired at CBS right out of college decades ago, began directing Sunday Morning in 2011 as only the third director of the venerated program in 40 years. Prior to that, she served as an associate director and director on harder news shows like 48 Hours and the CBS Evening News, as well as softer newsmagazine shows, documentaries and special events. She has sat in the same seats that many in her team now occupy.

"She's excellent," says associate director Jyll Friedman, noting Gerard's grasp of the show's rhythm and her ability to make each episode look polished. "She really knows her stuff. She's always calm and very organized. And she's very funny."

The show, which attracts a loyal but also growing viewership, hasn't undergone any radical changes since the veteran CBS journalist, Charles Kuralt, conceived it in 1979 as a broadcast version of something resembling the New York Times Sunday Magazine. It commences with a classical trumpet refrain and a short burst of news at the top. Then Pauley introduces long-form profiles of famous people and stories about the arts, along with other thoughtful, in-depth pieces that cover a wide variety of topics. Today's show features a food segment on authentic salty black licorice and another on the history of blackface (in light of Megyn Kelly's gaffe). The show invariably concludes with a bucolic nature sequence. And the director always delivers the show at a quietly measured pace, in sync with the idea of people relaxed and watching from their armchairs with a cup of coffee in hand.

Nora Gerard, in blue, with associate director Patricia Finnegan, sitting left, AD Kate D'Arcy Coleman, with arms crossed, and associate director Jyll Friedman, in red. (Photo: Marcie Revens)

This Sunday, however, is the day after a gunman has killed 11 worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue. A last-minute news update on that tragedy is in the works, which means Gerard and her directing team will have to find ways to shave down other components in the lineup. It also has forced her to rethink the holiday decorations already festooning the stage. There are some grinning pumpkins that may have to get moved, as well as an ominous Frankenstein prop looming behind where Pauley will initially stand.

"After yesterday, I'm wondering if Frankenstein is too much," says Gerard, who arrives on the set to do some camera blocking and makes the decision to strike it from the background while Pauley is reciting the news. "We have to be careful," she says. "It needs to be tasteful."

The stylized platform soundstage has always been a cherished set piece, featuring plexiglass panels that display monitors, graphics and the iconic sun logo that brands the show. Last year, though, the time-worn set got a subtle redo. The new arrangement includes a technological upgrade and allows Gerard, who was closely involved in the redesign, more flexibility to move panels about to find unexpected angles. "Move that one up a slot. Perfect," she says to the stagehands who assist her as she eyes the stage from all possible camera vantage points, including coming from behind.

Next she applies her decorating touch. "Let's pull these two forward," she says, referring to some bowls that will display Halloween candy during Pauley's introduction to the licorice story. "Put candy corn on the bottom and some licorice on top. These are the ones that the piece is about," she points to licorice bags imported from Denmark.

Although Gerard has been careful to introduce new ideas gradually to this tried-and-true institution, she is not shy about making a visual splash. One of the larger props she has brought onboard was the original Batmobile for a show that commemorated Adam West, who played the superhero. "Every crew member managed to get their picture taken seated in it," says Mark Dicso, who stage manages the Sunday show.

Gerard with associate director Jessica Frank. (Photo: Marcie Revens)

Shortly after Dicso arrives to the set, he and Gerard begin breaking down the script section-by-section to determine camera angles. That way, everyone will know exactly where they need to be at all times, and the segments will be shot according to Gerard's vision.

"Danny, can we get a jib shot of Frankenstein?" Dicso says to the cameraman, in response to Gerard's idea of swooping in on the prop—since returned to the set after Pauley's news segment—from overhead. Danny runs through the shot. "Yes, let's do it like that," confirms Gerard. "I'll spike it," replies Dicso, placing a piece a tape on the floor to indicate where Pauley needs to stand.

In order to create a seamless looking and sounding show, Gerard records Pauley's introductions beforehand, which are then stitched onto the fronts of the stories before the show goes live. When Gerard returns to the control room to direct Pauley's intros, Dicso becomes her eyes and ears on the set. He listens to Gerard's directions over his headphones and cues Pauley for which camera to address. He also gives her a countdown. When he gets to the number three, he goes silent and completes the countdown with finger signals, yanking his hand from view just before Pauley launches into her introduction. "He really makes everything hum," says Gerard. "He makes it all happen on the floor."

For Gerard, preparation for the Sunday broadcast actually begins on Thursday, when she meets with the producers and writers to discuss the lineup and to decide things like what props to order. On Fridays and Saturdays, she'll work on graphics and ingests every frame of video that's scheduled to air. "That always gives me a better sense of how to shoot the show," says Gerard. "And I can't really explain to you what that is to me. It's sort of organic. It's a gut."

Five associate directors assist her. All of them are women who get along extremely well. Jessica Frank, who started on the program in '92 as a production assistant, serves as the graphics AD. Starting on Friday, she receives graphic animations from editors that she checks for accuracy and feeds into the server. She also builds graphics and maintains the "sun" logos peppered throughout the show. "I have about 3,000 suns. I have every sun that's ever been sent," she says, referring to how viewers from all over the world submit sun images to her. "I reuse some," she says. "We have favorites."

Gerard with AD Cathy Kay. (Photo: Marcie Revens)

Once the show begins, however, her No. 1 responsibility is to back-time it; in other words, she maintains the lineup and makes sure they get off the air on time. "She's the voice of God by the end of the show," says Gerard.

Partly because of the synagogue-shooting news update, today's show is running two minutes over before they begin. Cutting into a long-form piece is not an option. But during the broadcast, Frank (in hand with the EP) and Gerard find other items to chip away. Teases get dropped. Gerard tightens out-cues. A bumper that states, "Do you believe in ghosts," that was slotted for about 10 seconds, Gerard dissolves sooner. When Frank comes forward with timing revisions for about the third or fourth time, Gerard takes one look at her and cracks, "I got nothin' for you." They both laugh.

All of the ADs say they love working on the show. "If I wasn't working on it, I'd be watching it," says Kate D'Arcy Coleman, who edits the podcast, cuts the voice-overs and news packages and, when necessary, updates the news for the later West Coast feed. "Sunday mornings used to be sleepy," she says. "But breaking news is pretty common lately."

Meanwhile, associate director Patricia Finnegan, another longtime CBS employee who shifted to Sunday Morning nine years ago, is also in the thick of it. When she gets in on Sunday, there is already a box of tapes waiting for her from color correction. She screens them and assigns them to editors for final edits. Pauley's lead-ins must be incorporated. The logo bug has to go on. "If the audio is bad, my job is to get it fixed," she says. This morning, for instance, she discovered a stuttering problem. She had to retrieve the original tapes and ask the editors to lay its good audio over the color-corrected tapes and be ready ahead of air-time.

Friedman, however, is the final person to put eyes on everything. "I'm the last pass," she says, describing how she makes sure every element on every tape is in the right order. She carefully scrutinizes them for even the tiniest mistake. She's caught things like a swear word visible on someone's T-shirt. "That's a violation," she says. "Or if there is a bad edit, I would flag that. Or if the graphics are not in, or if it comes in too long, I'll flag it."

Gerard with stage manager Mark Dicso. (Photo: Marcie Revens)

Once 9 a.m. hits, the live broadcast begins and Gerard can be found front and center in the control room, sitting so alert that her back doesn't touch the chair. On her right sits Cathy Kay, who actually did a stint on the original Kuralt-hosted show in '82, left, then returned as a substitute and, more recently, as the permanent control room AD.

If Gerard is the captain of this ship, Kay is the rudder. She counts backwards in and out of commercials and keeps track of the timing of each segment so that Gerard can focus on the directing. "This ends on a billboard, so look out," says Kay, at one point during the morning.

"Cathy really keeps me honest on where everything is," says Gerard, "where elements are, where we are in time, what we can and not get done." Kay also handles preproduction tasks such as reviewing teases and making sure the top of the show is in place. "She's absolutely a partner," says Gerard.

The two, in fact, sometimes overlap. More than once, both of them could be heard giving the same countdown cue simultaneously. "I was an AD forever," sighs Gerard, explaining that she's never totally kicked that reflexive habit.

"I can't imagine a better team," says Gerard. "We've all known each other for years. Everyone's really good at what they do. Everyone cares deeply about what they do." She adds, "I can't say I love getting up at 4 a.m. But once I get here, it doesn't matter. Because I love what I do."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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