The Golden Age. Fast changing channels. The future of TV News. Part 4
Bill Moyers, now an independent producer for public broadcasting after leaving CBS News in 1986, tells an amusing but sad story that perhaps symbolizes the situation in which network news finds itself. The story goes a long way toward explaining why Mr. Moyers left. ``I walked into the fishbowl [control room] for the `Evening News' one afternoon,'' Moyers recalls, ``and they were looking at a feed from overseas. One producer said, `That's not news!' Another producer said, `But it looks like news.' The executive producer said, `Then we'll use it!' And they did that night.''Skip to next paragraph
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In the course of interviews with 22 of television's major news experts, two of the most respected media philosophers - Mr. Moyers and Ted Koppel - spoke out strongly against what they see as the shortcomings of the medium.
``Are the airwaves of this country going to be used merely to amuse and divert us?'' asked Moyers, who has been called ``the conscience of American television.'' ``Or are the airwaves, which we own in common, going to be used to inform us, educate us, illuminate us, bring us together?
``Are we going to sit there passively in our living rooms, chuckling over sitcoms, being passively diverted from the things that are destroying us as a society?
``That's why half of the country was responsive to Oliver North,'' Moyers continues. ``They believed he was a heroic movie figure, not a real live person subverting the Constitution in the shadows of the presidency. That's why they're going to make a movie-of-the-week out of his story, not a documentary that alerts us to the dangers of a secret government.
``All the news in America gets turned into entertainment. If we allow this to continue to happen, one day this medium will be seen in retrospect as the narcotic that finally led to the numbing of America.''
Mr. Koppel, probably the newsman most generally praised by colleagues for his professionalism, refuses to give up on TV news, despite the fact that he detects a tendency to move it backward in quality. ``There are probably today five times the number of hours per day devoted to news or public affairs on ABC than when I joined it 24 years ago,'' he says. ``I feel there is still a potential for the future of network news to be rich and wonderful and extraordinary. But the focus has to be on making what we've got right now really good. More doesn't necessarily mean better.''
Doing more network news may not be the challenge at all. What is more likely to happen is a slow but steady reduction in the role of news in network programming. The bottom-line planners are still warning that the projections show a steadily declining viewership and income for all three networks in the remaining years of the decade.
Meantime, there is much speculation by TV news insiders about how the people at the top will perform in the crucial years just ahead. The network news presidents tend to be cautiously optimistic.
``The corporate entities recognize the importance of the news divisions,'' says Roone Arledge, president of ABC News. ``They recognize that [news] is the glue that holds the network together and the essence of what the networks really do.''
Lawrence Grossman, president of NBC News, says, ``If [General Electric] ever decided, as would be very tempting to do when the money crunch is on, that the news division is a liability and should be cut out while NBC concentrates on moneymaking entertainment, then they will end up diminishing the value of the franchise they paid a lot for. So far, GE understands that.''
CBS News president Howard Stringer says: ``We have to be careful of not being so reverential of the past, so involved with the present, as to ignore the future. If the three networks were being run by three other chief executive officers, we'd still be in a period of revolution. The fact is that, a few years down the road, people may well be writing about how Larry Tisch was brave and tough and strong enough to bring us through it all.''