Peter Jennings's new boss

IN a free enterprise system where big corporate mergers have become commonplace, a new communications combine should perhaps not be unexpected. But several issues of concern crop up in the wake of the announcement that ABC, the American Broadcasting Companies Inc., has been taken over by Capital Cities Communications Inc.

One is the quality of the giant network's future programming, presuming the takeover goes through as expected. A second is a public network's handling of the news under its new owners: Will that continue to be independent and in the public interest? Confidence in journalistic independence, at a time when some have targeted networks for ideological purposes, must be protected.

The public perception of the wisdom of the takeover will be determined in large part by the way the network responds to these two questions -- not with words but deeds. A network that reaches into millions of American households is, by definition, more than a corporate enterprise and requires treatment as such.

It may be surprising that a smaller firm with access to large amounts of money can gobble up one of the three huge commercial networks. In this case the acquiring firm has considerable holdings in both broadcasting and publishing, and its statements since the announcement have been reassuring. Both sides appear pleased: The takeover immediately was labeled ``friendly.''

But what if the takeover had been unfriendly, with the acquiring firm out to subvert rather than reinforce the network's news independence and skew the content of its entertainment programs? If one firm can purchase a network, what is to stop another from so doing? Capital Cities' success in the ABC case may spur other firms to mount their own takeover bids of networks.

The strength of the three major networks -- CBS, NBC, and ABC -- has begun to wane with the growth of cable-television networks and the VCR industry, plus the popularity of public television among a segment of Americans. Yet the networks still reach the great majority of Americans and can have an immense impact through news and entertainment programs.

In recent months assaults have been mounted on networks. The suit by Gen. William Westmoreland had the potential for making news organizations, including those of networks, more timid. Forces allied to conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina have been talking openly about taking over CBS.

Rumors of a hostile takeover swirled around ABC months ago: This week's move may have been an effort to forestall an unfriendly takeover. If that was the case, the Capital Cities buyout was all to the good.

No one has the experience that history yields in assessing the implications of the takeover of a major American television network. It's never happened before.

Yet the issue deserves broad study; the ramifications are immense. Congress may well want to examine it. ----30--{et

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