Hi-Def TV: Rather Gets His Druthers

Oct 30, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Dan Rather made hi-def headlines when he signed on with Mark Cuban’s HDNet to anchor “Dan Rather Reports,” the first regularly scheduled news program in high definition. The former CBS newsman has been keeping a relatively low profile since he left his post as anchor of “Evening News” in 2004, but he came up for air recently to talk with TelevisionWeek National Editor Michele Greppi and provided a glimpse into his upcoming HDNet newscast.

TelevisionWeek: How are things going?

Dan Rather: Things are going well. This is interesting, exciting and is a great challenge. It’s also daunting. We started out effectively the very last part of July to climb a pretty high mountain. So far all of it’s been up the north face. We’ve been working flat-out full throttle trying to build a bank of stories, because once we get on the air-our launch date, as you know, is Nov. 14-it happens every week.

Ideally we would have had eight or nine months to plan and get things started and to build a big bank. But in journalism one rarely deals with anything that ideal, so we have been, at one and the same time, getting organized, everything from office space to computers and editing equipment, those sort of mundane but absolutely essential things, and at the same time hiring a small staff. We have tried to pick people one at a time. We have a great group of people.

At the same time we’re doing that, we’re working on stories, making phone calls, wearing out shoe leather, doing research on the computer-and yes, we still do library research-developing stories and then going to report and shoot them. The pace on the latter part has been, well, I can only describe it as intense, for the last six weeks.

We’ve been going out and doing stories all along, but our reporting and research begin to come together and we’ve got a lot of good stories and we’re beginning to pull them together. Now there’s no complaint. This is my life and I love it. I have a passion for it. But I’ve spent a good deal of time on airplanes going places, and we’re beginning to feel pretty good about it.

TVWeek: How is the unit structured?

Mr. Rather: I’m ultimately responsible for the program. One of the things that interested me and one of the main things that got me to this new undertaking is Mark Cuban saying I’d have total, complete and absolute editorial and creative control. He not only talked that talk but he wrote that talk contractually. That’s a great thing. It’s unique in my journalistic experience. As far as I know it’s unique in journalism.

But with that comes a big responsibility, and I feel that strongly, to make the program as good as it can be-and also a responsibility to Mark, who has put a lot of confidence and backed his confidence with money and resources.

The first person I hired was Wayne Nelson, who had worked with me at CBS News for a long time. The way we want to work-and so far we’ve been able to do it to a remarkable, surprising degree-is not have people, including ourselves, pigeonholed as any certain thing. Everybody’s ready to do anything and everything needed at any time.

But as a practical matter, I spend most of my time where I want to spend it, and that is developing stories, reporting stories and putting stories on videotape. Wayne spends most of his time doing some of that, but also taking some of the load of organizing the team. It’s a rare day when he and I don’t talk half a dozen times. Most times we talk eight or 10 times during the day, assigning people, you know, it’s very important to get a marriage between the right person and the right story. Another way of putting it is that to a large degree so far, Wayne has been the inside man and I’ve been the outside man.

But I don’t want to leave any doubt about it that whatever one thinks of the program, it’s my ultimate responsibility and I’m accountable for it.

TVWeek: How many people are on the staff?

Mr. Rather: I have to count each day, because we’ve added people. But I know we’ve added them slowly, methodically and I think carefully; and I believe we now have, in terms of full-time people, I believe we have 11. That’s full-time staff, HDNet people.

Then we have another, let me take a look here, another eight people. Some of those eight additional people are full-time regular employees of HDNet. Some are contract players who have been contracted for a certain amount of time-three months, six months, what have you. And then we have some straight-out freelancers we’ve taken on for one assignment. That may not be our final number, but I’d rather run lean than fat.

In terms of crews, there are some crews that are full-time HDNet employees. Those were all at HDNet before we came into being. We have access to them when we need them. We also do hire camera crews as needed.

TVWeek: Will anyone besides you be seen reporting on camera?

Mr. Rather: Not in the early going. As we go along-keep in mind we’re committed to doing a minimum of 40 hours. If we can do more we’ll do them, and I think we are going to add at least one or two other on-camera reporters. But for the foreseeable future the answer is no.

TVWeek: Is the style of the pieces you are doing traditional or does it vary from piece to piece?

Mr. Rather: I’m into substance, not style, but in an effort to answer your question, the style will vary according to the piece we’re doing and the program we’re doing. Some shows will be multi-subject, some programs will be two subjects in an hour. Some will be full hours.

Let me say in parentheses that one of the things I’ve learned and part of what I love about this job is that this is a terrific learning experience for me. There are so many things I knew nothing about, starting with the business side of it. When we say an hour, that would be the equivalent of at least an hour and 25 or 30 minutes on a commercial network, because we don’t have scheduled breaks for commercials. In my dumbness, that didn’t occur to me until we actually got started trying to put the programs together.

It takes a lot of material to fill one of these hours. But in terms of our approach to it, we have such a wide variety of subject matter and for whatever it may be worth as we start out our three main areas are, in no particular order, investigative stories, what I call hard-edged field reports (which is breaking news is happening somewhere and we jump all over it) and interviews. I may want to write an essay for the end or somewhere in the program.

Within that, what I’m hoping to make our signature-I think a program such as ours needs to be open to story ideas from all over the place, but I’d like the program to be known especially for the following three things, again in no particular order:

Reporting on people who are fighting or who have actually fought in the war. So much coverage concentrates on the politicians and is Washington-generated, but even when it isn’t it’s in the context of what politicians say about the war, or flag-rank generals. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think it is vastly underreported what people who have fought the war or are fighting think and what’s happened to them.

The besieged middle class. I hate the term middle class because it sounds so European. But middle-economic-class Americans are badly squeezed, and I think it is narrowing. There are a number of of people in politics who will argue that it isn’t. Nonetheless, that general area of regular hard-working people who are trying to make their car payments, meet their house notes and at the same time either pay for their kids’ college or save for kids’ college, and the struggle they are having. I think they are under siege and I want that to be one of our signature pieces.

The third area is politics. I love covering politics, and I’ll be disappointed if we don’t make it part of our signature reputation that we do a good job of covering politics.

TVWeek: A lot of us weren’t quite sure what was meant with the announcement that you were pushing your debut date back until after the election, when there wasn’t so much going on.

Mr. Rather: I’m glad you asked. For us and for Mark and
for the people on the inside here this was not a big deal. … Mark and I had agreed and I had signed a contract. The question was, well, when do you start this? Mark in his usual full-throttle-forward mode said, well, I want to start it by the middle of October. I looked at him and said, well, OK, let’s go for middle of October. We didn’t see it as a commitment to start then but as a target time. It remained a target. Then we said, let’s give ourselves until Oct. 24. We could have started on Oct. 24. We had enough material to put a program on and I think it would have been a very good program. However, two things: It wouldn’t have been as good a program as I thought we were capable of on our first program, and I want our first program to be as good as we can make it. And I wasn’t sure we had enough first-quality bank pieces. So we talked about it here and asked ourselves whether there was anything magic about Oct. 24. No. So we talked it through and Mark said there is nothing imperative about a start date. When we get to the spring, no one is going to remember or care whether you started on Oct. 24 or Nov. 14. So with us it was no big deal.

TVWeek: Do you know what will be contained in that first show or whether it will be single topic or multi-piece?

Mr. Rather: No. We have this discussion on at least an every-other-day basis. I have seen at least two reports that will make really good hours. So we haven’t decided, and we may not make that decision until we get down pretty close.

TVWeek: Will this show look like a relatively familiar or traditional news program? Will it play like one?

Mr. Rather: The straight answer to that is I don’t know. What we hope is that you will be seeing television news as you’ve never seen it before. This will be seen on the highest-quality hi-def. Mark Cuban is a hi-def true believer. When you see the best-quality high definition on a high-definition television set, it is news as you’ve never seen it before. It has a vividness, a depth, an ability to show detail like nothing else on television.

TVWeek: Mark Cuban is not your average executive or businessman. Does he want all of the things he is funding to look different?

Mr. Rather: Yes. He not only wants it to, he’s insistent about it. At the very least he wants it to be shot having constantly in mind that this is going to be seen in the highest-quality high definition. Therefore, we shoot it with the best high-definition cameras and it is transmitted in the highest-quality hi-def. I can’t say enough about how good he has been to me and to this work. He has been terrific all the way through.

Keep in mind I’m talking about somebody I didn’t know until earlier this year. He’s a striver for excellence. He says when you can, show me something different, not for the sake of just showing something different, but we want to break new ground. I think it is unrealistic to think we can do all of these things right first out of the box, but that is our brief from him. With quality journalism there are certain fundamentals that must be and will be adhered to. You don’t want to do something that is journalistically unsound. But there are some new and interesting ways to do things, and we’re experimenting with them. So far some things I say, well, not bad but I don’t think it’s there.

TVWeek: Can you give a little better sense of what you’re talking about? Is it using the camera in artsy-fartsy ways?

Mr. Rather: No. I don’t believe in artsy-fartsy. Let me give you an example. The high-quality high-definition picture is so amazing, so remarkable, that under other circumstances-with an interview, for example, you would take it inside and not think twice about it. Whenever possible we try to do interviews outside. Anytime we can show something about the environment it’s advantage us, so we try to do that. Close-ups are frequently effective.

TVWeek: There’s a depth to hi-def if you have the right kinds of movement in it. Do you find yourself looking for ways that are journalistically sound to build in that sense of depth?

Mr. Rather: Yes, definitely.

TVWeek: So how have you changed?

Mr. Rather: I haven’t been this enthusiastic about anything in a long time. I’m more open to new ways of doing things, experimenting with everything from electronic gadgets to new ways to shoot stories.

I don’t think anyone would say I spent a day in journalism that I wasn’t hungry for a story. I’m a story hunter, a story breaker and a storyteller, but the challenge of wedding this spectacular new kind of television picture to high-quality and I hope first-rate journalism excites me to the level that I have about a 3,000 calorie attack every other hour.

At base I’m the same old Dan, for better or for worse. I want to make this work. One of the things that makes this exciting is we’re trying to do a lot in a short space of time. I like our chances, but I recognize it’s not assured.