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NETWORK DIFFICULTIES. Fast changing channels. The Future of TV News. Part 1

By Arthur UngerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 30, 1987



New York

As the 20th century wanes, television network news faces its most serious crisis since journalism entered the video age about 40 years ago. Such insiders as Howard Stringer, president of CBS News, and former news anchor Walter Cronkite agree that the final three years of this decade may prove to be the most crucial in the history of network television news. According to Mr. Stringer, those years will be ``exciting, dangerous, exhilarating, troubling all at the same time.''

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A series of Monitor interviews with anchors, news division presidents, corporate chief executive officers, and influential media-watchers reveals that American society is viewing the first phase of an adjustment by the networks to a harsh new reality - a life-or-death struggle for survival in a changing news-delivery environment co-inhabited by newspapers, specialized magazines, radio and TV news bulletins, 24-hour cable and radio news services, satellite transmissions to local stations, and video-cassette recorders.

It has become clear that network news must radically revise its concept of its mission as well as its presentation of the news to maintain its current position as the public's No. 1 source of information.

This crisis comes on screen at a time when other elements in the climate surrounding broadcasting in the United States have changed dramatically:

Many Federal Communications Commission (FCC) controls have been lifted under deregulation, relieving stations of much of the need to provide public-service programming.

The recent corporate network takeovers of all three networks placed hardheaded, layoff-minded, profit-motivated businessmen in charge.

Overall network viewership and advertising revenues are down, and projections are for worse years ahead.

By the time the dinner-hour national news airs, most viewers have already been informed of the headline news through other sources.

Yearly news budgets of some $200 million to $300 million per network have grown out of all proportion to news income. Like a gangling adolescent who has been the recipient of a lordly allowance for many years, network news divisions are being told by their corporate ``stepfathers'' that they have reached maturity, must ``find a job,'' and prove themselves self-supporting.

Yet the CBS newsmagazine ``60 Minutes'' has proved to be a virtual money machine, earning $70 million to $100 million in profit this year for CBS and whetting the appetites of all the networks for more ``entertaining'' news programming.

These and other developments are forcing both evolutionary and revolutionary changes in the network news watched by about 50 million Americans every night.

The corporate executives who took control of the networks in 1986 and '87 - Thomas S. Murphy at Capital Cities/ABC, Robert C. Wright at General Electric/NBC, and Laurence A. Tisch at CBS - have made it clear they regard news as a business - an enterprise that must keep an eye on the bottom line.

No longer are they willing or able to treat news operations as a ``loss leader,'' a costly imagemaker meant to lure both viewers and entertainment advertisers to the network, as the news was treated for 30 years or more.

Back in its early history, in fact, network news came to be regarded as a nearly sacred public trust in the United States, performing a vital service. Requirements for license renewal and such FCC regulations as the (now-discarded) ``fairness doctrine'' made it essential that stations be able to document their commitment to a balanced presentation of public-service programming.

It was the entertainment area, conventional wisdom dictated, that had to bear the burden of profitability.

``In the beginning, there was the feeling that this enormously powerful medium owed the audience more than entertainment,'' recalls network pioneer Frank Stanton, former president of CBS.

``People like David Sarnoff of RCA Corporation talked about its great potential force for education and information,'' Mr. Stanton continues. ``And, of course, the FCC was laying down some pretty strong guidance on what the obligations of the licensees were; for a long time license renewals were based on the mix that you had in your schedule.''

Stanton doesn't attribute the shape of TV news to altruism, however. ``While I think [founder] Bill Paley, in the early days of CBS, felt that he wanted a balanced schedule, I doubt that he ever sat down and said, `If we do news, we'll have a different halo than if we do just entertainment.''

News budgets that had hovered around the $1 million mark in the 1950s, began to rise as competition for viewers became heated.