Network news then and now: the long view from Brinkley
| New York
Almost as legendary as Edward R. Murrow among TV newsmen and TV news buffs are the names Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. For many years, the Huntley-Brinkley co-anchorship on NBC won the same kind of general approval which Walter Cronkite's more recent anchorship won at CBS. As a matter of fact, when the Huntley-Brinkley Report competed against the Cronkite news, more often than not, the victors were Huntley-Brinkley.
But now, after several decades at NBC - where he felt he was being underutilized after the departure of Huntley - Brinkley has switched to ABC. He is the host of the quintessential Sunday hard-news show - This Week With David Brinkley (Sunday, ABC, 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., check local listings). It is turning Sunday into a major news day, adding to the fare of viewers who previously could count only on ''Meet The Press'' for the big Sunday stories.
The basic format of ''This Week'' includes a summary of the week's news and background on the major topic of the day's show. Then comes an interview with the individual newsmaker, followed by comments from James Wooten and a round-table discussion by more or less permanent panelists - more often than not including George Wills, Catherine Mackin, Sander Vanocur, Hodding Carter, and Ben Bradlee. At press time, the guest for this Sunday's program was scheduled to be French President Mitterand. (However, very often there are last-minute changes in order to accommodate the latest news. So it is possible a Falkland Island-oriented guest may be substituted.)
In New York, on his way to Paris for the Mitterand taping, Brinkley stopped off at his Wyndham Hotel suite, which he keeps permanently - although his home is in Washington, where ''This Week'' usually originates. The sitting room, where we chatted, is carpeted in beige, with pastel chintz upholstery and draperies. A very formal man with a wry sense of humor to match his smile, Brinkley is relaxing in shirt sleeves, although his tie is tightly tied, maintaining an almost last-ditch stand for conventionality.
How does he account for the surprising third-place showing - behind ABC and CBS - of the Tom Brokaw-Roger Mudd coanchorship on NBC?
''Both men are very good. There is all sorts of talk about whether or not the chemistry between the two is working. But they've been on a very short time. Huntley and I were on about a year before anything happened. You've got to give those fellows more time.
''People forget that there was much less competition in news during those Huntley-Brinkley days. ABC was not really in the ball game at all. NBC was a stronger network than it is now. CBS had Douglas Edwards doing the evening news. Then, when we began beating them rather badly, they put on Cronkite, who didn't do any better for about 10 years. Then he began picking up ratings.
''But lots has changed since then - in the world and on TV. People are more sophisticated. We were the first to do a serious news program - before that it tended to be old newsreel-type stories and newsmen who just read the news. The competition is much rougher now.
''And today the new technology makes us all look good. It would be difficult for the current newscasters not to be better than we were in those early days. Don't forget we used black-and-white film, an optical sound track, primitive processing and editing equipment. Film had to be shipped by airplane, and often got lost in the airport. Now it is color, magnetic tape, no processing. ''
Is it possible that the ''This Week'' format is just about what a one-hour, prime-time news show would be if the networks were to expand their evening news programs?
''I suspect that there is not going to be a one-hour evening-news program in the forseeable future. But if there were one, it would probably be just about the same as the half-hour shows we have now with each story running longer.''
What does Brinkley feel is the main purpose of ''This Week?''
''To deal with news stories in a way that simply can't be done in a prime-time half-hour. For instance, no evening news show could give President Mitterand 20 minutes or more, as we will be doing.''
Will Brinkley ever anchor an evening-news show again?
He shakes his head vigorously. ''I would never want to do an anchor again. Not that anyone has asked me. Facts are facts, and I'm not a kid anymore.''
How about commentary on ''World News Tonight'' on ABC?
''I could only do commentary one night a week, unless I work a seven-day week , which I won't. And I'm not sure I want to do commentary anyway. My deal with ABC involves the Sunday show and political coverage, so you'll probably be seeing more of me on ABC at convention and election time.
''Now that there has been a change in NBC news leadership, would Brinkley heed an offer to return?
''Listen, I have a four-year contract with ABC, and then I'll be ready to work about one day a week. I am not bitter at NBC, though. I had a contract there, and they agreed to let me leave so that I could do something I enjoyed. They didn't have to let me go. . . .
''How does Brinkley feel about the alleged power of TV news to influence events? It has been said that President Lyndon Johnson decided not to run when Cronkite seemed to be turning against the Vietnam effort. ''It's time to quit when even Cronkite is against me,'' he is supposed to have remarked.
Brinkley grins and shakes his head. ''I knew Lyndon Johnson pretty well, and I don't believe he ever said anything like that. And even if he did say it, it is nonsense. It sounds more like something the CBS press department invented. I just don't believe newsmen have much influence at all.
''What would Brinkley like to do with ''This Week'' in the future?
''I would like to take the show out of Washington more. I want to get around the country with some of our panel. For instance, agriculture is in a bad condition now, and that is a major story that I would like to do directly from some agricultural states like Iowa.
''What major changes in TV news does Brinkley foresee?
He grins again and throws up his hands.''I didn't foresee the changes that have already happened. I didn't know that tape was going to change our world, that color would come as quickly as it did. I didn't understand satellites until they were already here. So I am not one to predict now.
''All I can tell you is that I am confident that you and I are going to wind up paying for at least some of what we now get free.
''Although in the past few years, whenever NBC News saw fit to put him on camera, Brinkley seemed to be unhappy, now he seems to be happier than ever. Is this true?
He smiles wryly in the way audiences have come to know so well. ''I am aware this makes for a boring story, but I probably have fewer complaints than any man I know. I'm happily married, happily situated in my work, in good health. And I guess that's about all there is.'' The Regulators'
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