NBC News boss blueprints program shifts in bid for top
New York — FROM the world of public broadcasting, Lawrence K. Grossman brings to the presidency of NBC News not only himself but one of PBS's best-known tenets: Quality rather than mere ratings pays off in television news.
And, from everything he said in an interview the other day, he appears determined to preserve the conviction even in the midst of the high pressures of commercial TV that weigh heavily on a newly decorated office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
Mr. Grossman presents a soft-spoken, rather soothing portrait in neutral gray: Van Dyke beard, mustache, pepper-and-salt hair set against gray carpets, huge gray rectangular Formica desk, large gray conference table, and gray files.
Only the still-empty bookcases, which contain a lonely copy of Webster's dictionary, are an un-gray white. On the walls are three TV monitors and six clocks with various world times, as well as a Sony videocassette recorder and monitor for screening tapes.
Grossman is relaxed in gray shirt sleeves. His trousers are gray, too. But then, there's a red striped tie that breaks the color monotony. It's almost as if in this one spot, despite a corporate atmosphere that demands conformity, a repressed vibrancy has broken through.
As we talk, Grossman has been in his job only three days - but he has spent several months between jobs (he was president of PBS), studying television news, visiting NBC News bureaus, talking to NBC News personnel. An NBC News source tells me that Grossman has already earned a reputation as a hard worker - arriving early and leaving late. His air of quiet competence and general politeness have impressed NBC News personnel.
''I happen to think that in the news business, the better you get, the better you do,'' he explains, smiling just a bit shyly, as might a man not used to sloganeering. He did succeed quite well in the world of advertising as head of his own advertising company. He also was vice-president in charge of advertising at NBC from 1962 to '64.
NBC's ''Nightly News'' is sometimes in third place and most often in second place in the three-network race for ratings supremacy in the evening news. As of the week of May 7, it ranked second between front-runner CBS and third-place ABC. ''I would love to see us in first place,'' he says. ''My intent is to aim to be No. 1. . . .''
Can that be accomplished with the people already in the key spots, or might NBC news offer some new on-camera personalities?
''I don't see any new personalities on the horizon at all,'' Grossman says. ''That's not to say that things do not evolve. But we have a strong organization now, with very good people. It's just a matter of the right emphasis in developing new programs and putting together a strong and clear-cut management team.''
One of the first actions of the new NBC News president was to announce the creation of an NBC News Editorial Board, which will meet daily with executive producers of NBC Television News programs to determine editorial direction. On the board are Grossman, three news vice-presidents, plus Tom Brokaw and John Chancellor. Brokaw and Chancellor, the on-camera members of the board, ''can help generate the general direction, a healthy and important aspect of what we are doing,'' Grossman says.
''We won't be picking the stories. The purpose of the board is to develop policy on overall coverage, to see where we should be going, to open up new avenues, to see things we may be ignoring or overlooking or which need looking into.''
Since the idea of a board is considered innovative in a field in which people guard their own turf zealously, won't this mean a sharing of decisionmaking responsibilities, and won't there be resistance to that?
''I have found enthusiastic acceptance of it,'' Grossman says. ''Tom and John have welcomed it. They have plenty to do, obviously, but every day at 11:30 a.m. we go over the issues. I think it will bring NBC News together and set a general news direction for the entire division for all of our programs.''
He smiles: ''If that's the only thing that comes out of it, it'll be terrific. But we have already embarked on discussions of areas of public affairs - religion as news, for instance, and science - that we are not satisfied that we have presented clearly. We cover them well when there is breakthrough news, but the whole climate of science and religion in the world is something I think we have insufficient understanding of.''
Grossman says he has three priorities: first, to improve regularly scheduled television news programs so that NBC becomes No. 1.
Second, to put those resources - in effect, a syndicated news service - at the disposal of NBC's affiliated television stations.
Third, to develop new programs such as the magazine-style TV format to be called ''Summer Sunday, USA.'' It is planned as a series of 11 one-hour news specials, at least two to be anchored by Roger Mudd. There is talk also that Linda Ellerbee, of NBC's canceled ''Overnight,'' will become the new program's permanent anchor. Segments on the program will include a Vox Pop section, reminiscent of a popular network radio discussion program of the 1940s, and a news game pitting three NBC correspondents against three politicians. Grossman jokingly suggests calling it ''Beat the Press.'' The series will start airing in July opposite CBS's ''60 Minutes.''
Grossman was upset by the speech earlier this month of FCC chairman Mark Fowler in which he accused all the network news of ''a reckless disregard for whether facts being reported happen to be true.'' He was especially caustic about an NBC News Roger Mudd interview with Gary Hart in which Mr. Mudd asked the presidential candidate to do an imitation of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. ''Is it political reporting worthy of Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite?'' Mr. Fowler asked.
''I worry when the regulatory official who has domain over licenses publicly addresses his views on which way the news should go.'' says Grossman.
''It's very clear that there's a strong antipathy toward or distrust of the press in some parts of the public. And I think we've got to address that problem by making sure that what we do is fair, honest, and responsive. At the same time, we must not hesitate to call the shots as we see them. I think it's going to be an issue in the political campaigns. Certainly the chairman of the FCC made that point in his speech.''
When Richard Salant became president of CBS News without previous news background, Edward R. Murrow sent him a letter in which he commented that an effective news director needed concern for humanity and a curiosity about the world. When NBC News announced his appointment, Larry Grossman received a copy of the Murrow letter from Mr. Salant.
''All I can say now when people ask me if I feel qualified for this job is that I hope I bring to it both of those attributes - a concern for humanity and a curiosity about the world.''