Dan Rather’s Digital Age

Nov 2, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Dan Rather goes hi-def Nov. 14 when the weekly “Dan Rather Reports” debuts on Mark Cuban’s HDNet. He’s as excited about that as a kid embarking on a year in which every day will be Christmas.
He does not sound like a man who turned 75 on Halloween and just embarked on his most no-frills job in more than 44 years. He sounds like a man having fun for the first time in years.
Forced out at CBS News in June, the former CBS News icon quickly struck a deal with Mr. Cuban. Mr. Rather’s first hire: his new executive producer, Wayne Nelson, a CBS News alumni who worked with Mr. Rather on the “Evening News,” “60 Minutes” and globetrotting assignments in every hot spot imaginable. They and their band of intrepid journalists, only a dozen of whom are full-time employees, are getting back to basics.
They are focusing on the stories they want to tell and on telling them the way they want to. Mr. Rather said the intent is to make signature stories about people who have fought in war from their perspective because “That is vastly underreported.” He also plans to highlight what he calls “the besieged middle class” and politics.
The headliner and staff of “Dan Rather Reports” are blissfully free of editorial interference from corporate suits and from the regulatory restrictions that confront broadcast news operations.
Mr. Rather’s relationship with Mr. Cuban “is better than I could have imagined it. He’s available-apparently the man never sleeps-all the time. He comes forward with ideas but always with the heading of ‘This just occurs to me,’ or ‘Somebody’s passed this along to me, the final decision is yours as always.'”
Mr. Cuban has been ideal in that “he’s involved-he’s emotionally involved in the responsibility of putting this thing on,” Mr. Rather said. “But his basic thing, and he e-mails it over and over again: ‘Tell me what you need. My job is to get it for you.'”
Mr. Rather and Mr. Cuban communicate “all the time via phone or e-mail,” said Mr. Cuban, the ultra-busy HDNet chairman and president and owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks. “Sometimes daily, sometimes weekly.”
When the two talk, it’s usually “Dan telling me where in the world he is headed or has been,” Mr. Cuban wrote during a recent interview via e-mail. “This is Dan’s show. He has carte blanche. So they are more courtesy updates than anything else. “I told him to take chances, follow his instincts and do the show he always wanted to do.”
Though Mr. Rather and Mr. Nelson say that every reasonable request they’ve made for resources has been granted, there is no denying they had a broader and deeper support system at CBS News.
“I’m learning a lot about doing more with less,” Mr. Rather said.
Mr. Rather has become conversant with gadgets of the digital age: a cellphone, a BlackBerry and a laptop. His wife, Jean, took the lead on buying a hi-def set for home viewing.
“Let me just say it is big. But already I’m thinking of getting huge,” Mr. Rather said.
Next up, he said, is a Sidekick device like Mr. Cuban has.
The newsman jokes about having been a late adopter. “This falls under the general heading-and I know it’s out there-‘Can Dan do digital?'” he said. “Yes, I can.”
Mr. Nelson said he has “learned that this business can be fun again” and he sees the joy in Mr. Rather.
“I see a smile on his face,” the executive producer said. “He’s just got so much energy. I almost worry about him because I don’t want him to wear out. He’s almost like a little kid, just a big kid with a new toy.”
Mr. Rather didn’t disagree: “I haven’t been this enthusiastic about anything in a long time. I’m more open to new ways of doing things.”
One of those is to take Mr. Cuban seriously.
“At one point Mark said to me, ‘How are you doing, what do you need?’ and I sent back a note saying, ‘We’re doing OK; it’s a slog but we’re doing fine. The chaos factor is fairly high.’ He shot right back: ‘Ah, chaos can be energizing.’ Now, this has not been my experience,” said Mr. Rather. “Among the things I’m learning is how to make chaos energizing.”
This article is part of TVWeek.com’s High Definition newsletter, a weekly source of breaking HD news.


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