March 25, 2015

1959. Dissatisfaction with the CBS TV News Format

Bill Downs Proposes Changes at CBS
"Edwards on the set of Douglas Edwards With the News (1952)" (source)
CBS News Office Communication

November 18, 1959

To: Sig Mickelson

From: Bill Downs

I write this on a personal and confidential basis because I don't want people to think I'm nosing in where I have no business. I hear from Howard and the grapevine down here that there is concern over the ratings on the Edwards news show and possible changes on it, or the format.

So, he said, sticking his nose in, may I pass along my ideas on the subject?

CBS News has dominance because it has better men. The Edwards show has made minimal use of the staff. I would suggest that if the Huntley-Brinkley show has gained on our 6:45, it is because it gives a greater illusion of coverage of the news than a report out of New York supplemented by anonymous film and a regular news analysis.

I would suggest that correspondents who cover a story in Washington, Paris, or wherever report it. Even if this means using an audio feed from London or Paris with balops. It is better to have the on-the-spot report than a rehash of the wires. On domestic stories, I would suggest that separate voices—or film or live when possible—of the correspondent who covered be called in.

The change in format would make Edwards more of an editor than the narrator—there would be a built-in dynacism [sic] in switching—and I think that on dull days this format could be played with to pick a newsworthy subject and venture into some reporting in depth.

I obviously make this suggestion because it will give everyone including me more exposure as a CBS News correspondent, a thing that some office boys in New York don't know.

I also would like to revive an old suggestion which has been kicked around for years but never really tried. It also might provide the excuse and the opportunity to unify the newsrooms—radio, TV, public affairs, and what have you under one roof.

In the days of massive truth, it's pretty obvious that the Edwards newsroom is a set, whether the teletype machines in the background work or not. It's not a CBS newsroom and really never pretended to be. It's a studio. So why not do it from the newsroom? Why not say we have a late report from Paris on the De Gaulle-Khrushchev conference—"Rack up the Paris film, Joe. Come in, Dave Schoenbrun in Paris."

The same newsroom setup should apply to Washington too, and the switch could be used from desk to desk. A reporter could use charts. He could even bring in the news principal or an expert for short interviews; the same for New York reporters.

I think Doug does a fine job of news coverage and am not criticizing it. But I think possibly it has become settled and solidified, when most of the time news is exciting, shocking, horrifying, funny, or fascinating.

I think also that the Huntley-Brinkley routine is settling into a pattern that will eventually become a kind of minstrel show, ending up "Good night, Mr. Jones—Good night, Mr. Bones."

It's not necessary to go overboard on the newsroom idea, with people dashing around and that sort of stuff, but it seems to me that CBS News can be portrayed as a working organization under conditions of reality better than on a set—or am I wrong? The first thing necessary, I would suggest, is to throw away the makeup kits.

Anywhere, there it is. What do you think, I betcha.