TV's opportunity for service at Geneva

PRESIDENT Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev will meet each other for the first time in Geneva on Nov. 19 and 20. Their summit is the focus of much worldwide attention, but no more so than in the United States, where all major television networks are planning intensive coverage of this two-day event. Why are the television networks going to Geneva in such force? Is it in the hope that it will improve their ratings? The answer, really, is yes, and no.

It has long been a widely held belief in the broadcast industry that a particularly stellar performance at a world-class event, such as a political convention, election night, or during a prolonged human drama, will add to a news division's luster and thus encourage a greater number of people to tune in on a daily basis.

Viewers, however, should not be misled by all the hoopla and ballyhoo which accompany the television circus, as we pitch our tents on the edge of Lake Geneva for a week in November.

An attempt to improve the rating is only a very small part of the reason for being there (and it's not such a bad reason anyway).

Envy of print has not disappeared from television news rooms altogether, by any means. Television journalists know full well the capacity of newspapers and magazines to provide greater depth on most stories.

While the title of my own broadcast is ``World News Tonight,'' it would be the height of arrogance to suggest that we are able to cover the world in the 22 minutes allotted to us every evening. I am as self-conscious about our shortcomings in this regard as I hope Walter Cronkite was when he signed off his nightly broadcast by saying, ``That's the way it is.'' I certainly knew that was, at best, only part of the way it was.

The summit meeting is seen as an important event by television journalists because it provides us with an opportunity to concentrate much more comprehensively on Soviet-American relations than we are able to do on a daily basis.

Geneva is a particular delight for those journalists who are, more often than not, generalists. Intensive study of Soviet-American affairs is a luxury the anchor person cannot always afford. Our ultimate hope is that such an enrichment process will not be just a private affair.

If the viewer is attentive, the chances are excellent that such coverage concentrated over a three-week period can significantly improve his or her understanding of Soviet-American affairs. Many of the country's first-rate Sovietologists and arms control experts will be our daily companions.

While reading a poll the other day on how Americans react to the phrase ``star wars,'' I was struck to see how many, many people thought of the film, and how few thought of the President's Strategic Defense Initiative.

In our coverage of Geneva, we would hope to change some of that.

In its present format, daily television news cannot hope to provide enough context. ABC's ``Nightline'' and ``The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour'' are the only daily broadcasts with sufficient time to explore a single major story, which is rather pathetic when you think of it.

It is only when the collective television mind is focused on an event such as the summit that the viewer can expect extensive, in-depth coverage all across the broadcast day.

We have already begun, and so have our competitors, to provide a ``strategic guide'' to what the summit may or may not accomplish. From Mr. Gorbachev's political imperatives to the impact the summit will have on the developing world, from the technology of star wars to the history of Soviet-American treaties, US-USSR relations will be the meat and potatoes of our daily coverage for the next few weeks.

Most in television are not particularly encouraged when we hear that such a large number of Americans, 65 percent was the last figure I read, derive much of their news from television. Coverage of this historic summit provides one of those opportunities for television news to shine. Those of us who stitch the coverage together begin with a simple premise -- a better informed electorate means a better chance for a safer world. By comparison, ratings don't seem very important.

Peter Jennings is senior editor and anchor of ABC's ``World News Tonight With Peter Jennings.''

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