Overselling TV news: a talk with NBC's Reuven Frank
New York — Has success spoiled network news? One of TV's grandest news pioneers, Reuven Frank, president of NBC News, thinks so.
''Network news is more successful than is healthy for it,'' he said when I spoke with him about NBC's new weekly documentary show, ''Monitor'' (premieres Saturday, 10-11 p.m., check local listings), in his Rockefeller Plaza office. This veteran of the network news wars is generally regarded by those who have worked for him during his 33-year tenure at NBC as a sagelike scholar of the news, a tough infighter but always a gentleman.
''News is big money,'' he continues. ''Production costs are much less for news than for entertainment programs. And shows like '60 Minutes' can bring in lots of advertising income.
''At least equally important is the development over the last 10 years of local news as an enormous generator of income for stations. As a result of that, there are news programs on many stations that are longer than the news justifies. It also encourages shows like 'Real People' and 'That's Incredible' and 'Entertainment Tonight' to wrap themselves in a kind of cachet of news. All of that is dangerous. And most of it is caused by the recognition that news or even pseudo-news can mean big money.''
But ''NBC Nightly News,'' with Tom Brokaw and Roger Mudd, now languishing in third place among network evening news shows, is not about to be spoiled by success, is it?
Mr. Frank shakes his head just a bit sadly. ''They have improved and the program has improved. Now all we need are the ratings to improve. We're committed to Brokaw and Mudd. I feel that if we do the best program, sooner or later the audience will reflect this. Most nights we do the best program.''
How does Mr. Frank account for the comparative runaway success of ''The CBS Evening News'' with Dan Rather?
''Rather's personality is a large part of it. And it's a pretty good program.''
From 1974 to '79, Mr. Frank produced the Peabody Award-winning magazine show ''Weekend.'' As in the case of ''Monitor,'' the anchor for ''Weekend'' was Lloyd Dobyns. How will ''Monitor'' differ?
'' 'Weekend' flowered at a different time, an exotic time - it went on for a year just before 'Saturday Night Live.' So not only were we not inhibited, but the people who watched us tended to have few inhibitions. So we could afford to be a bit fey.
''Now we will be on at a 'respectable' time - 10 p.m. - so I suppose we will be a bit less fey. But I would hate for the show to become totally orthodox.''
I have previewed the premiere show and can report that it is not a bit orthodox and it is more than just a bit fey. ''Monitor,'' produced by Sy Pearlman, focuses on human interest rather than world-shattering events. Dobyns is one of TV's most authoritative anchors and a splendid writer, and he takes viewers on a fascinating journey into offbeat places ofttimes peopled by offbeat characters.
The initial show features the following segments: a gratuitous and disturbing study of obsessed people who harass other people, reported by correspondent
Steve Delaney; a visit to Tulelake, Calif., the horseradish capital of the world; a report by correspondent Rebecca Sobel on whites with 1/32nd black blood who are considered legally black in Louisiana; a Dobyns profile of the Williamson gang, also called ''The Travelers,'' a clan of allegedly flimflamming American gypsies with origins in Britain.
The last time I spoke to Mr. Frank it was to ask him if he believed there was a double standard, as Israel had charged, in the way American television was reporting the Israeli-Lebanese war. His answer, which aroused some controversy in and out of NBC News at the time, was that there was no double standard but that he held Israel, a democratic country, to a higher standard than he might hold a totalitarian nation. Seemingly, that would represent a double standard. Would he like to clarify that now?
''They say there's a double standard - one for Jews and one for everyone else. I say there is one standard for countries who declare themselves free and another standard for others. We do not apply the same standard to Israel as to Iraq. I apply the same standard to Israel as to the United States,'' he says, referring to such practices as censorship.
As far as Mr. Frank is concerned, the topic of military censorship is closed. But he does go on to say that during the Falkland Islands war, NBC News made it very clear all the time that the British were controlling the news.
''What really bothered me about the Falklands coverage was the reporting of the war with graphics . . . maps, animated figures. Since we didn't have pictures, we had to do a lot of restructuring and explanation. Much of that looked to me like a video arcade game. It trivialized the news. And there were people getting killed there. I was very disturbed.''
What would Mr. Frank like ''Monitor'' to accomplish?
''The biggest thing I want is for people to ask each other the next day whether they saw it. I want it to stimulate them, poke them around, surprise them a little.
At the conclusion of the premiere show Mr. Dobyns says he assumes he will see us all next week, unless ''Monitor'' repeats what happened to a new show aired on French TV not long ago. The following week, according to the French ratings, virtually nobody watched. A frightening prospect for the anchor of a new show even to suggest.
But there's little chance that nobody will watch ''Monitor'' again. Its wit, wryness, and intellectual curiosity will certainly appeal to viewers who can match those characteristics.
The question is: How many are there at home on Saturday night who will be fey enough not to watch ''Fantasy Island''?