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CBS News chief Bill Leonard talks of future coverage

By Arthur Unger / May 29, 1981



Bill Leonard is the Quiet Man at CBS. But in his own seemingly silent way he has been responsible for major changes at CBS News. Williams A. (Bill) Leonard became president of CBS News on April 1, 1979, after 30 years as a CBS correspondent, producer, writer, and director of public-affairs broadcasts.

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During "the Leonard years" . . .

* He was responsible for the development and supervision of "60 Minutes."

* He replaced Walter Cronkite with Dan Rather and brought Bill Movers back to CBS (although he lost Roger Mudd to NBC).

* He introduced "Sunday Morning" on CBS and has been instrumental in expanding the "CBS Morning News" to 90 minutes, from 7:30 to 9 a.m., starting Sept. 28 -- in the process arranging for "captain Kangaroo" to be moved to the 7 -to-7:30 a.m. spot, also starting Sept. 28.

* He moved Diane Sawyer from the State Department beat to co-anchor the "CBS Morning News" with Charles Kuralt.

* He scheduled a regular science show, "Walter Cronkite's Universe" (starting June 9); "In the News," a current events broadcast for children; and "Magazine," a monthly daytime informational broadcast.

* He has also scheduled a ground-breaking 4-to-4:30 p.m. daily news show, starting Sept. 28, and, for June 14-18, an unprecedented five hours of prime-time broadcasts on American defense.

Now interviewed in his CBS News office, far west on 57th Street, surrounded by a collection of New Guinea and Australian aboriginal carvings on the walls, Mr. Leonard says, "When I was asked by Gene Jankowski [CBS/Broadcast Group president] to take this job, I said, 'don't ask me to do this if you just want me to mind the store for a few years while you look around for a replacement [ when he reaches retirement age soon]. That's not my nature. I am going to do the things I want to do, what I think should be done.' Gene said 'Good.' So I have gone right ahead and done what I believe is needed. I feel fulfilled. I am very lucky. I count my blessings."

How long has Mr. Leonard, a native New Yorker, been at CBS?

"Since 1945. I got out of Dartmouth in 1937 and tried to join CBS then. But it took until 1945."

Although he is known as a strong company man, when he retires in a year or so , might he move to another network, as his predecessor, Richard Salant, did? (Mr. Salant moved to NBC).

"No, sir," he says briskly. "I will not. I'm going to be a consultant from Washington to CBS when I retire."

Does Mr. Leonard have any regrets about his choice of Dan Rather over Roger Mudd for the evening news?

"No regrets. I saw Dan as he has handled three or four emergencies in a row and I thought to myself, there isn't anybody -- maybe including even Walter -- who could have handled them any better."

Leonard insists that, despite reports to the contrary, there hasn't been any dropoff of viewers, although perhaps they are not the same viewers. "Studies show that Dan attracts a younger viewer and has a somewhat broader appeal to women. But that's dancing on the head of a pin -- I think the decision was the right decision."

Who will anchor the new 4 p.m. news show? There has been talk the CBS was courting Mario Thomas.