September 28, 2015

1977. The Problem with the ABC News Division

How to Fix a Third Place News Broadcast
ABC Evening News anchors Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters on set (photo by Ray Stubblebine, Associated Press) (source)

From The Washington Post, March 9, 1977. "Will Arledge Preside Over ABC News?" by Sander Vanocur, p. B1:

Will Arledge Preside Over ABC News?

By Sander Vanocur

The problem with the ABC Evening News is not primarily Barbara Walters. Nor is it Harry Reasoner. The problem with the ABC Evening News is ABC News.

There has been much speculation and gossip about how Reasoner and Walters get along—whether he will leave the show, whether she will leave the show, or whether he will remain in New York and she will move to Washington. It fills the pages of newspapers and magazines and completely obscures the problem, which is ABC News.

The nightly news programs of the three networks are the final distillation of the daily activities of their respective news departments. Imagine the programs in your mind as what comes out of the small end of a funnel into which a large amount of wine is being poured. That is how it looks at CBS and NBC.

But at ABC, the reverse is true. Priorities have been reversed. They pour their news input in through the narrow end and what comes out the large end of the funnel is a tiny trickle of wine served to us by two very famous wine stewards.

Whatever else Walters has or has not done, she has focused the attention of ABC management on this fact: The network simply has not given its news department both the money and the support that the network has lavished on its entertainment and sports departments.

CBS was dominant in the early days of radio news because William S. Paley gave Edward R. Murrow a blank check to go out and hire the best: Howard K. Smith, William Shirer, Charles Collingwood, Eric Sevareid, David Schoenbrun, Winston Burdett, Bill Downs. A tradition was started. When major events happened, people turned their radio dials to CBS.

In the middle 1950s, Robert E. Kintner took two men named Huntley and Brinkley and used them to build a news department. For the remainder of that decade and the first part of the next, NBC dominated television news as CBS News had earlier dominated radio.

I had the pleasure of working for Kintner during that period. If you were a reporter at NBC News during his reign, you were treated as one of fortune's children. If major events happened, you would go on the air immediately because Kintner ordered entertainment shows replaced with major breaking news stories. His reasoning was simple: When something important happened, people knew that they could see it first and see it best on NBC.

That tradition has never existed at ABC. For the past 15 years, under Elmer Lower and William Sheehan, two of the most decent men in journalism, ABC management has not given its news department the attention and prominence that Paley and Kintner gave at CBS and NBC. For that reason, people do not associate ABC with being a leader in the news.

The lesson that seems to have now been learned at ABC is that the hiring of a star from another network to join with another star on the evening news simply will not raise ratings. Huntley and Brinkley were a pairing made in heaven. But they dominated the news ratings, both the nightly news and at a convention, because they were supported by a strong news organization that had the full backing and support of top network management.

Now there is talk that ABC Television President Frederick S. Pierce, who recently added the ABC News division to his field of responsibility, is going to make some changes in the division's management. Current speculation centers on making ABC Sports President Roone Arledge head of ABC News.

Arledge is the man who gave ABC Sports its commanding position not by wasting his energy returning phone calls. In an interview with Playboy magazine last hear he hinted that he had some ideas about what was wrong with television news.

While not confessing to Playboy that in his heart he lusted after the presidency of ABC News, it was a tip-off to some people in the industry that Arledge was looking for a new challenge in television.

Running ABC News would be a challenge, another summit to scale. But Arledge would be foolish to entertain the prospect, if it is offered to him, without assurances from ABC management that they will give him the same kind of backing that Paley and Kintner gave their news departments.

That means he would be allowed to preempt ABC's incredibly successful entertainment programming to present a news special when a major news story develops—to not, on occasions like last year's Fourth of July, be so shamefully outclassed by CBS and NBC.

If he gets that kind of commitment, then, in time, he may be able to provide the galvanizing energy which ABC News so badly needs. Without it, ABC will continue to be a bad third and we will continue to spend our time writing gossipy little tidbits about Walters and Reasoner which will titillate readers but obscure the real problem.