USA Today's TV show plans to give viewers info-tainment

A $500 million communications giant is about to give birth to a $40 million baby. On Sept. 12, just three days before the sixth birthday of USA Today (the newspaper), some 160 television stations in the United States will start airing the Gannett Company's newest syndicated venture, ``USA Today: The Television Show.''

The executive producer is Steve Friedman, former executive producer of NBC's ``Today'' show, who also serves as president of GTG (Grant Tinker/Gannett) East, the East Coast TV wing of Gannett.

In an interview in his sedate, 27th-floor office, with its oxford-gray rugs and walls, in the Gannett Building here in Arlington, just down the road from the newspaper's offices, Mr. Friedman bounced a baseball on his desk as he described the new show:

``It'll have a little bit of `Entertainment Tonight,' a little bit of the national and local news, a little bit of `Today,' a little bit of `Nightline,' and a lot of USA Today.''

From what this writer was able to see in pilot tapes, there's quite a bit of MTV as well.

The TV show - one-half hour on weekdays and an hour-long weekend version - has a staff of over 100, and it is estimated that start-up costs will exceed $40 million. Gannett ``spent $500 million on USA Today before they made a nickel,'' continues Friedman, ``so they really have a lot of guts and put their money where their mouth is.''

(With the paper claiming a readership of 5 million, industry experts are still disagreeing on whether it is really profitable yet.)

Friedman goes on to say, ``We have no deadline for success, but I hope that by December we will have the show really rolling and getting it into the consciousness of America.''

Grant Tinker, former president of NBC and now head of GTG Entertainment, estimates that the show will need two years to build its audience. Most of the 160 stations that plan to air the show have signed two-year agreements. Friedman says all the stations except one are network affiliates. And 122 of them are planning to run the show between 7 and 8 p.m.

In New York, however, the CBS affiliate, which is moving ``The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather'' to the 6:30 p.m. time slot, has decided to place a game show, ``Win, Lose, or Draw'' in the 7 p.m. slot and, after viewing USA Today's presentation tapes, has scheduled that show for 2 a.m.

Friedman does not believe that his show will compete with the regular evening news programs. ``Our competition will be game shows and sitcom reruns,'' he says. ``Our job is to do what the other shows are not doing - I call it entertaining information.''

The program will follow the four-section newspaper breakdown with four personable anchors - Bill Macatee, Edie Magnum, Kenneth Walker, and Robin Young - holding down the sports, USA, money, and life segments, respectively. Boyd Matson and Bill Sternoff will be cover-story correspondents. Each day there will be a 3- to 4-minute cover story, which may come from any of the regular sections. All other stories will run between 30 and 90 seconds.

``Our emphasis will vary from day to day,'' explains Friedman. ``The idea is to have good short parts and weave them together into a whole greater than the total of its parts.''

To judge from interviews with staff members, from the program's tentative schedules for its first two weeks, and from practice run-throughs seen in its ground-floor, 9,000-square-foot studio with a five-camera setup (two of them controlled robotically from the 27th floor), I'd say viewers can expect to see pretty much what Friedman has described.

There will be a strong emphasis in opening days on poll stories stemming from USA Today surveys about life in America, interviews with presidential candidates about polls, celebrity interviews with stars like Tom Hanks, Joan Rivers, and Robert Urich, a sneak preview of the 1989 cars, and many Olympics features. Disco-beat music, plastic high-tech sets, and monitors galore predominate.

But it isn't fair to fault Friedman, because ``USA Today: The Television Show'' is not a traditional news show. He does not pretend it is a news show at all. ``A news show is what you watch to find out what happened that day,'' he says. ``This program will not be a review of the day. It is about tomorrow's news, things which may happen in the next week or so. Basically we will be doing second-day stories on the first night.''

The newspaper and TV show will work together, with meetings and material shared in person and via computers. TV section heads have offices at the newspaper sections. The newspaper's staffers, however, ``will only be on camera as experts to be interviewed,'' says Friedman. ``We want TV people to do TV, and newspaper people to do newspapers.''

Friedman says he doesn't expect the show to win over TV critics. ``Only the viewers will love us,'' he predicts. ``But television is a great, democratic institution, and people get the chance to vote for us with their dials.''

According to Friedman, we may be in for a new era of print-TV relationships. Referring to ``World Monitor,'' a television presentation of The Christian Science Monitor premi'ering on cable TV's Discovery Channel Sept. 12, Friedman says, ``If `USA Today: The Television Show' and `World Monitor' are successful, you are going to see more and more publications - like the New York Times and the Washington Post, for example - trying to marry print and television. Who knows? Maybe it's the wave of the future.''

Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic.

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