A Big News Week for News Media
A Westinghouse deal with CBS could foreshadow major changes for networks
NEW YORK — Standing on the shores of Iwo Jima, CBS anchorman Dan Rather and retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf ponder the challenges that American GIs faced more than 50 years ago as they struggled up the black-sand beaches to rout out the entrenched and fiercely disciplined Japanese defenders.
The somewhat stiff scene is part of a CBS Reports documentary that will air on Thursday night. It is the last of a five-part documentary series dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II and the pride of today's embattled CBS news division.
But as Mr. Rather and network executives breakfasted with reporters to draw attention to the year-long effort and dedication to detail that produced ''Victory in the Pacific,'' reporters and producers at CBS News were keeping a watchful eye on the wires for word of what's expected to be the second major media shake-up of the week: the much- rumored Westinghouse Electric Corp.'s bid for the CBS network. CBS officials were meeting in New York on Aug. 1, and were expected to accept the $81-a-share bid from Westinghouse..
While the July 31 announcement of The Walt Disney Company's $19 billion dollar bid for Capital Cities/ABC was greeted as the dawn of a new dream team by both industry analysts and investors, the outlook is less clear for Westinghouse's $5 billion dollar bid for CBS.
If Westinghouse's offer is approved by CBS's cost-conscious chairman, Laurence Tisch, it could determine whether the financially strapped network, which is trailing its competitors in the ratings, will be able to continue to produce such documentary series in the future, or if it will take off in a new direction entirely.
''Everyone is interested, but everyone stays focused on their work,'' Rather says. ''We've been through this before, and after you've been through it several times, you become sort of fatalistic.''
Some industry analysts worry that Westinghouse, which is already burdened with heavy debt and scant earnings, won't have the resources needed to boost CBS's lagging fortunes. Others are more optimistic, saying that Westinghouse's long tradition in broadcasting augers well for CBS, particularly the news division.
''CBS will again be in the hands of broadcasters, and much of the uncertainty and unraveling that took place [during Mr. Tisch's tenure] will be brought back into focus,'' says Don Edwards, chairman of the Broadcast Journalism Department at Syracuse University in New York.
No one at CBS news, where morale under Mr. Tisch is said to have reached new lows, will comment officially, but many people are eyeing the change with guarded optimism.
''The people there are really depressed; it's been a terrible ride for a once-great news operation,'' says a former CBS reporter, noting that despite severe financial constraints, the network still puts out a fairly strong evening news broadcast. ''I think any change will be welcome.''
The challenges facing all the network news operations are a product of technological breakthroughs which have spawned a dizzying array of competing resources and surprising mergers, like Monday's announcement of Disney's acquisition of Capital Cities/ABC.
''Ten years ago, if you wanted to watch the news you had to turn to the networks,'' says professor Jeff Netter, a mergers specialist at the University of Georgia in Athens. ''Five years ago, you could tape it, today I can get it on my computer in ten seconds.''
Prof. Netter says the uncertainty about where the new cable and fiber optics technology will take the media is prompting executives to create bigger and bigger companies, hoping they'll be prepared to reap some profits from the changes, however they turn out. That, in turn, is causing a reexamination of the networks and their traditional role, particularly in the news departments.
''When it comes to immediacy, CNN has just taken away from the networks the sense of urgency that television news delivers,'' Mr. Edwards says. ''When you're competing with CNN which has 24 hours a day and treats every 22 minutes as a new deadline, there has to be some hard thinking done over what news function is going to be best served by the traditional networks with half an hour a night.''
From Edwards's point of view, the possibilities are intriguing. Congress is expected to lift the so-called ''prime time'' rule, which limits the networks to broadcasting only three hours of programming between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. each evening. That could open up another hour for expanded news coverage.
The three networks could also decide to merge their foreign bureaus, Edwards says.
That would create an international news force that could compete more effectively against CNN, which has aggressively tried to establish itself as an international news source, opening new bureaus around the world almost as fast as the networks were shutting them down during the lean, cost-cutting 1980s.
''Network news has to find a new role,'' Netter says. ''It can't be as comprehensive [as newspapers] or as immediate as CNN, so it will probably have to become more and more entertainment oriented, and some of these mergers will help that.''
But for many in the networks who've fought hard to preserve quality broadcasting in the face of severe budget constraints, all this talk of technological revolutions and radically transformed news operations has a hollow ring.
''Programming is programming,'' says Linda Mason, executive producer of CBS Reports. ''While technology is changing, allowing you to do different things in terms of delivery, the bottom line is still what you put on the air.
''We're trying to bring you thoughtful, reasoned, and well-done shows,'' Ms. Mason explains.
While critics have given ''Victory in the Pacific'' mixed reviews, and some chide it for being awkward and over-produced, it still represents a major commitment of resources to a serious news endeavor. It's that kind of commitment that many in the journalistic community hope will survive this latest round of mergers.