The Golden Age. Fast changing channels. The future of TV News. Part 4
New York — 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.''
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.''
Mr. Tisch, chief executive officer at CBS, tells the Monitor, ``I think it is incumbent upon CBS to deliver the news to the American people, regardless of cost. It does not have to make a profit. But it has to be run with some regard for money. Like every businessman, I am interested in running a semblance of an efficient organization. I know we can't achieve production line-like efficiency, but at least we should have an operation where there is not abject waste.
``There is always a group of people in every walk of life that believes the old times were better,'' Tisch adds. ``I don't buy that. I think if you compare our news programs today to the programs of 20 or 30 years ago, you'll find them much better today, with all due respect to the giants of the past.''
NBC's Robert C. Wright says, ``I think a network's news is a significant contributor to the image of the network..., but it doesn't shape the image any more than sports does. Probably the most [important] single influence on NBC's image today is the Thursday night `Cosby Show.'
``I don't think NBC News can pay for itself,'' Mr. Wright continues. ``An awful lot of what we do on the news side falls into the category of public service. It's not something we can ever expect on its own to make money at. On the other hand, I think we have to have rational views as to how much we can afford.
``The idea of a clash between bottom-line philosophy and quality news is a kind of defensive propaganda I would be putting out if I was in the news division myself,'' Wright adds. ``...The fact is that the news losses are far greater in the last few years for the three networks than they have ever been. My objective is to keep things close to break-even. So, if we can return only to where we have been, that will be fine.''
ABC's Thomas S. Murphy says, ``The network news is the glue that keeps the network together. Otherwise you are just a distribution system for entertainment programming, most of which is supplied by outside producers in Hollywood. You might as well be the Palace Theatre. There are businessmen at all three networks who have been looking at costs, and the costs did escalate substantially over the past half-dozen years. But any network that fools around with their cost structure to the point where they damage the potential of that network news for being No. 1 is making a great economic mistake. It's just pure business logic which demands that they maintain the best, the highest-quality, network news operation.''
All spoken like enlightened broadcasting businessmen. But businessmen nonetheless.
CBS's Tisch, the CEO with the least professional experience in news, appears to be the most emotionally committed to news. According to Bill Moyers, ``Larry Tisch is thinking harder about the future of news than any executive I know in this business since Bill Paley 25 years ago.''
But a CBS News insider who declines to be identified, asks, ``Can we believe Tisch? When he came here, he said he wouldn't cut the news budget. Then he cut it. He said he wouldn't sell the magazine division. Then he sold it. He said he wouldn't sell the record division. Now he's [sold] that. Can we believe him when he says he is committed to top-quality news?''
CBS anchor Dan Rather gives Tisch a vote of confidence but expresses just a little uncertainty about his ultimate loyalty. ``He has a good reputation, and he listens,'' says Mr. Rather. ``He's conversant with what's been on the air in our newscasts. Will he stand up for news when there are bottom-line problems? I don't have an answer. Tisch, Murphy, and Wright all understand the importance of network news, but I don't know how far they will stick with network news when money problems arise. I don't believe they know the answer themselves.''
Mr. Stringer, probably the most pragmatic of the news presidents, seems to be convinced that he can cope with the Tisch commitment to news - whatever that turns out to be.
Wright of NBC, whose background was mostly in small appliances, although there was some broadcasting experience, seems to regard news as mainly a division of GE that is not pulling its own weight. Sports and entertainment seem to have as high a priority in his planning as does news.
If friction arises between the news division and the CEO at any network within the next year or two, predictions within the industry are that it will occur at NBC, where news division president Grossman appears to be a man poised to make whatever stands are necessary for principle.
Mr. Murphy of Capital Cities/ABC has the most experience in broadcasting of all the CEOs. But it has been mostly on the local-station level. His professed commitment to network news, although based in part on straightforward professional attitudes, is mainly influenced by his knowledge of what constitutes good broadcasting-business practices. He is rightfully proud of a network news division that has made enormous strides under Roone Arledge in the past 10 years, to a point where it is regarded as the innovative leader. It is likely that Murphy will try to avoid causing problems for Mr. Arledge, as the news president goes about his avowed task of making ABC News No. 1.
Over and over again, in talks with anchors, news presidents, and video journalists, the same set of clich'es was articulated. The Big Question: ``When the chips are down and the money crunch is on, will the commitment of the CEOs to quality news be strong enough to overcome their deference to the bottom line?''
The answer is yet another clich'e: Only time will tell.
Meanwhile, several indications are emerging of how the networks hope to maintain both quality in the news and their positions at the top. Here's what news viewers can expect to see in the rest of this decade:
A subtle new emphasis on interpreting the news and offering more analytical features on the evening news.
More attempts to duplicate the financial success of ``60 Minutes,'' with more copycat magazine shows like ``West 57th.''
A growing tendency for news divisions to create news-oriented entertainment programs, such as ``Diane Sawyer's Person-to-Person'' and ``Try to Remember,'' currently-in-development projects at CBS.
An almost complete focus on background news while local stations, CNN, and radio pick up more of the national and international headline news.
The gradual demise of network news, as budget cuts force the networks to forgo future improvements, or possibly even the complete disappearance of dinnertime network news, to be replaced by news at earlier or later times or by wide-ranging local news.
An attempt to use network news pieces and personalities on more than one program. For instance, the Mike Wallace ``60 Minutes'' piece not long ago on the controversy over Bob Woodward's recent book on the late CIA Director William Casey aired later in the week on CBS's ``Nightwatch,'' which often picks up items from other CBS News programs. ABC is also attempting to use anchor Peter Jennings, Koppel, and commentator David Brinkley in other news-oriented presentations.
More international use of network news material. CBS's international sales department has already sold the ``CBS Evening News'' with Dan Rather in France. Attempts are being made by all three networks to market their news products abroad. This could result in skewing the news toward international customers.
Possibly cost-cutting attempts to pool the three-network coverage of world events like the one suggested recently by ``60 Minutes'' producer Don Hewitt. Dan Rather also suggested that CBS form a 24-hour-news service (not broadcast) that would provide news and commentary to international subscribers, thereby making more economical use of news department talent.
With all these ideas for change still brewing, some observers predict that 1970-86 will be known as the Golden Age of Television News. In 1986 and '87, the future of television network news - despite a cadre of thoughtful, capable, and caring professionals in charge - passed into the hands of three men - the CEOs of the corporations which have taken over the networks. Will Laurence Tisch, Robert Wright, and Thomas Murphy honor their own verbal commitments to maintain quality in the news on their networks?
How they handle their news divisions in these final years of the decade will tell us whether or not the Golden Age of television news is finished.
Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic. Parts 1, 2, and 3 in this series were published Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 and 2.