News business falls to the bottom-liners

Oct 7, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Maybe the 21st century, like one of the seasons of “Dallas,” will turn out to have been a dream. A really ghastly dream. It’s not just that the news is so frightening; the news business is going through some pretty terrifying times as well.
What’s most worrisome, and has been for years, is that the concentration of media ownership means less diversity of choices for the American viewing public. That grand Utopian explosion of channels in cable that former FCC Chairman Mark Fowler used to babble and bray about ad nauseam (he did everything ad nauseam) means nothing if all the channels are owned by two or three corporations.
The notion of GE-owned NBC controlling NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC is not a wholesome development. Now there are stirrings again of further media concentration: Talk of CNN merging with some other news operation in order to cut the costs of both. This time the bride, or groom, involved in the unholy matrimony is ABC, not really surprising, considering the lousy shape ABC is in.
Bottom-liners at the network are reportedly considering an ABC-CNN partnership; maybe ABCNN? Not to overpraise ABC News or underestimate CNN, but isn’t this a little like Neiman-Marcus’ merging with Kmart? (Or, oh hell, maybe they’re owned by the same conglomerate anyway) Already there’s been published worrying about the fate of ABC News superstars when mixed in with the less-generously remunerated CNN employees-although with Connie Chung joining CNN royalty (appropriately headed by Larry King), CNN has come to seem more big timey.
News as doormat
I don’t suppose we’d get very far, anyway, staging a telethon for ABC News personalities. Ted Koppel-who has enough integrity to have been at home as one of Ed Murrow’s boys during that particular heyday at rival CBS-has said more than once that he thinks he and, implicitly, others in the same deluxe boat are overpaid. But they bring in a lot of bucks, so they ought to be paid a lot of bucks.
Ever since “60 Minutes” proved that a news program can be a network gold mine, networks have viewed their news divisions not as providers of a public service but as profit centers, expected to further fatten corporate coffers. One of the galling consistencies in the history of all the broadcast networks is that whenever the entertainment division screws up and profits start to fall, the first place management goes looking to make budget cuts is the news division. Shameful, deplorable, indefensible-but true.
Suggesting that ABC News merge with CNN is insulting to the men and women who have made ABC News what it is today and to the man who got that ball in motion many years ago, Roone Arledge, a genuine living legend (and, one hopes, a long-living legend). ABC News was the “doormat” of the industry for years, though there aren’t too many of us around anymore who can remember that far back.
That awful Disney company, whose ownership of ABC has been so ruinous to the once-thriving network, is no respecter of news or newspeople. The most glaring example is, of course, the fact that the network was ready to toss Koppel and his hugely praised “Nightline” overboard when it looked like old cranky David Letterman might jump the CBS ship. Fortunately, Letterman turned out to have more respect for Koppel and executive producer Tom Bettag and the rest of the prize-winning “Nightline” team than their own employer did. Letterman has integrity too.
Apparently attempting to emulate ABC’s colossal gaffe, somebody over at CBS has been insidiously spreading the word that Don Hewitt, founding father of the national institution known as “60 Minutes,” is getting on in years and that maybe it’s time for him to join the Walter Cronkite yacht club, replete with crested blue blazer and nifty cap’n’s cap. After all, “60 Minutes” doesn’t attract ads for The Gap nor those hip young things who shop there. It does attract ads for Mercedes-Benzes, but apparently that’s not good enough for the Philistines running the network.
A very prominent “60 Minutes” insider says not to worry about Hewitt and that the rumors aren’t to be taken seriously. But just the idea that somebody is saying such an idiotic thing is worthy of worry (and with so many worries at large in the world, why not throw another one on the pile?). Attention must be paid, and all that. “60 Minutes” has brought more glory and more money to the CBS empire over the years than any news program at any network in broadcasting history.
`Demo’ be damned!
Ironically, “60 Minutes II,” the spinoff that some doubted would be able to keep up the pace with Big Daddy, is apparently delivering a more demographically desirable audience. Sometimes I wish the word “demographics” had never been invented. It seems responsible for so much that is wrong with the way television operates.
Truth be told, it wouldn’t hurt if “60 Minutes” profiled somebody young once in a while during the occasional cultural segment. In this area if no other, “60 Minutes” does sometimes reflect stodgy thinking. They’re always doing opera singers, for Pete’s sake, or very elderly impresarios. You have to be as old as Vladimir Horowitz was when he died in order to be considered for a “60 Minutes” profile. The other extreme-giving “life achievement” awards to, say, Britney Spears or Justin Timberlake-is, of course, much sillier. But “60 Minutes” ought to be able to find a happy medium.
Anyway, whatever minor gripes one might have about the show, “60 Minutes” is a giant redwood in the forest of television and Hewitt deserves more respect than to have scurrilous rumors spread around about his age. I wish I felt as young as Don Hewitt acts.
Sometimes the indignities suffered by network journalists in this new, cold, bottom-line world seem not quite so awful. Here is a perfect example from our friends at the Associated Press: “Fifty dollars was apparently too steep a price for ABC anchor Peter Jennings’ latest book `In Search of America.’ With sales slow, despite a massive first printing of 725,000, Hyperion is offering to share with retailers a 40 percent discount that will cut the cost of the coffee-table book to $29.95.” Said company President Bob Miller: “Looking back, I wish we had started out at a lower price.”
OK, I know it’s mean, I know it’s petty, I know it’s-whatever. But reading that little news item gave me the first good laugh I’ve had in a good long time. Wait-this just in: “Filling in for Larry King tonight is-Pete Jennings! Now from our combination newsroom and Museum of Television in New York, heeeeeeeere’s Petey!”