Breaking NBC's news break

There's a big problem for TV news documentary divisions when they come up with what they consider a ''hot'' documentary: how and when to release news about it to the nation's press (and the public), so that people will still tune in to watch the whole show when it airs. NBC's recent plans to get the most publicity mileage from its documentary The Man Who Shot the Pope (Tuesday 10-11 p.m.) ran into unexpected early success.

The Marvin Kalb-Bill McLaughlin documentary uncovered what it considered to be evidence strongly suggesting that Pope John Paul II was targeted for assassination with the knowledge and perhaps assistance of the Soviet KGB (because of his close ties with Solidarity). Executive producer Anthony Potter, NBC news head Reuven Frank, and the whole NBC news organization knew they had a story that would get lots of attention from the nation's press. But how to get that attention and still not lose the audience for the TV show?

A careful plan was worked out whereby the program would be shown to the press a few days before the show was scheduled to air, with an embargo on the information until the actual day of the airing.

Nice plan. But somebody leaked the information a week ahead of schedule. According to rumors, it may have been one of the principals of the show. The New York Post, in its Tuesday edition, a full week before the airing of the show, told the whole story. Other media people, aware of the embargo, were furious, as were the top NBC news people. So transcripts of the show were quickly messengered to press people as other TV news shows and many of the nation's newspapers picked up the story and printed it on Tuesday and Wednesday.

A look at the transcript reveals, however, that the story is not quite as definite as the initial reports would indicate. Almost all of the accusations are based on circumstantial evidence, and most of the accusations are couched in warily indefinite terms. Still, it makes a disturbingly fascinating story.

Will the show itself get the large audience it had hoped to get anyway? Probably not. But, then, that's show business. Or is it news business?

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