Last spring when Fred Pierce, announcing Arledge’s appointment as head of ABC News as well as ABC Sports, remarked that “both departments require instant transmission of current events with uncompromising integrity,” there was a fair amount of tittering in the network’s newsroom along with the more universal sound — low moaning. People naturally wondered if the man who had been so successful at making dull entertainment into news would be tempted to try the opposite. From ABC’s point of view the move made perfect sense. The network was now leading the other networks in all areas but news, where it was in fact losing the little ground it held. (Nearly a year after Barbara Walters began co-anchoring the “Evening News” with Harry Reasoner the show had fallen a full rating point further behind the competition.) Moreover, several CBS and NBC affiliates that were considering switching to ABC because of its strong primetime schedule were having second thoughts because of its weak news division.
From Arledge’s point of view the move also made sense. He had been at ABC Sports for 17 years, nearly ten as its president, and had begun to repeat himself (literally, by putting “Wide World of Sports” on Saturday as well as Sunday and “Monday Night Football” on Tuesday and Thursday). His chances of taking over the entertainment division were crushed by the dismal failure of “Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell” and the modest showing of a Frank Sinatra special he produced. He had avoided signing his new contract at ABC for over a year and was openly entertaining other offers — a co-production deal with NBC that would have instantly made him a very rich man as well as several equally lucrative offers to produce films. (“I figured other guys have yachts on the Riviera,” Arledge says. “Why not me?”) In the end Arledge says he chose the ABC offer because it was “one hell of a challenge for a news freak like myself.” (He claims to subscribe to — and read — 50 newspapers and magazines, including such specialty publications as Plant Life, Advertising Age and Architectural Digest.) These days his proudest possession in his office at ABC Sports — amidst the clutter of Emmy statuettes and gold-plated golf clubs and inscribed pictures from Frank Sinatra — is a “thank you” letter he received from Fidel Castro addressed “Dear Mr. Roone.” It seems that after spending five days touring the island with Barbara Walters and an ABC crew for a special on Cuba, Castro jokingly demanded to be paid for his interview. Walters explained that it was against company policy to pay interview subjects. What about paying me a producer’s fee? Castro asked. Walters said that the program already had a producer. Castro threw up his arms in mock despair and tried a final time. I’ve taken you all around the island in my jeep, he said. Pay me as a driver. Walters wrote out a check for $10 and demanded a receipt.
The one thought that consoled ABC News staffers after they learned about Arledge’s appointment was that there was nowhere to go but up. Historically, ABC News had always been the ignored stepchild of an impoverished family. There was no tradition of journalistic integrity at the network, no symbolic equivalent of the bronze relief of Edward R. Murrow that greets employees of CBS News every morning as they arrive at work. The network first began to put together a news organization in the late ‘50’s, many years after CBS and NBC. And then it was a threadbare effort with a well-deserved reputation for being, as one old-time ABC News producer put it, “last with the least.” Film was purchased from two syndication newsreel services since the network did not have its own crews. As late as 1964, when Marlene Sanders, now a vice president in charge of documentaries, first showed up for work as a fledgling correspondent there was “one desk and three reporters in the New York bureau. Whoever arrived first got to use the typewriter.” The “ABC Evening News” (with Howard K. Smith and Frank Reynolds) expanded to a half-hour color format in 1967, nearly four years after NBC and CBS had made the same move. The next year, when a long-expected merger between ABC and ITT fell through at the last moment, the already woefully inadequate news budget was slashed further. It was an election year and ABC News covered the political conventions largely with taped recaps that began late in the evening, a cost-conscious practice that has continued until the present. Last year, in fact, much of the opening night of the Republican convention was preempted by a routine baseball game.
That kind of network support has, for the most part, engendered the news staff it deserves. There were always a handful of ABC correspondents who were fully competitive with their colleagues on the other networks, but beyond them the pickings were lean indeed. David Buksbaum, a former ABC News senior producer who is now in charge of special events at CBS, recalls a run-in he had with an ABC correspondent during the Chappaquidick affair. The correspondent had sent in film of Kennedy entering the courthouse with a voice-over saying that he would be indicted that day. “Well, what happened inside the courtroom?” Buksbaum impatiently asked the correspondent over the phone. “I don’t know,” the man admitted. “What do you mean you don’t know,” Buksbaum screamed. “I never got inside,” the correspondent explained. “It was too crowded.”
There was only one bright spot in the gloomy history of ABC News. In 1969 the network hired Harry Reasoner away from CBS for the then outrageous fee of $205,000 a year. The caustic, urbane Reasoner was successfully teamed with Howard K. Smith, whose conservative, just-folks approach appealed to the heartland (it was, of course, the same chemistry David Brinkley and Chet Huntley had used so successfully at NBC and seems to be the only dual anchor approach that appeals to a mass audience). About the same time, ABC hired Av Westin from CBS to produce the “Evening News” show. A bright, owlish-looking man then in his late 30’s, Westin had worked for many years at CBS under Fred Friendly and many considered him — Friendly included — about the best news producer in the business. He quickened the pace of the show, established the practice of “banking” stories that anticipated news developments and boosted staff morale no end in the process. Within a year 60 more ABC affiliates decided to clear the “Evening News,” enabling ABC for the first time to nip at the heels of second-place NBC in the ratings race. But in 1973 Westin lost out in a power struggle with Bill Sheehan — the man whom Arledge eventually replaced — and left the “Evening News” to produce ABC’s award-winning documentary series, “Closeup,” then quit the network completely two years later. Under Sheehan staff morale sank to new lows and the ratings followed.
Soon after his appointment Arledge staged a weekend retreat for ABC News executives and correspondents at the Montauk Yacht Club, and while many of the participants were impressed with his style — everyone was flown out in chartered seaplanes — several were not sure what their new boss had said when it was over. “He talked about having ‘impact’ and the need for ‘tough investigative reporting,'” said one senior correspondent. “Hell, we didn’t need to be told that.” Some of the things he said seemed plainly contradictory, such as the fact that he intended to put more rather than less “hard” news on the air and that “just because there’s another Lebanese cabinet crisis doesn’t mean we have to report it.” Arledge’s most unequivocal statement that weekend was his strong support of Geraldo Rivera in answer to a question about whether the reporter would be used on the “Evening News.” Arledge said that there were certain kinds of “personality” stories that Rivera did better than anyone else and that he had a presence that “jumped right out of the screen,” although, to be sure, his exuberance “needed to be controlled at times.” It was a direct answer to a loaded question, one that did not please many at the meeting. For Rivera (who is almost always referred to by ABC news personnel as Jerry Rivers, his name before he decided to go ethnic) has become a kind of code word at ABC News, a symbol of the kind of self-aggrandizing, finger-popping style of reporting that is all too common on local news shows — a symbol, in fact, of that very mix of showbiz and news that Arledge himself represents to many of his employees. “Some people wouldn’t be satisfied if Geraldo got us a scoop on the Second Coming,” Arledge says about his favorite reporter. But it is precisely that scoop which many of his colleagues feel Rivera brings to nearly every story he does.
What seemed certain at the meeting was that Arledge had clout with the network. Elton Rule had announced that the operating budget for the news division would be increased by twenty-five percent. Anxious to make a quick splash Arledge lost no time beginning to spend it. He lured Cassie Mackin away from NBC and Sylvia Chase from CBS by nearly doubling their salaries, and even though they were good solid reporters it was widely felt that Arledge had overpaid by half. Probably his most controversial decision was to hire Sander Vanocur, who had not worked on network television since he quit NBC in 1971. As TV critic for the Washington Post Vanocur had written several flattering articles about Arledge that, in the opinion of one ABC News executive, “more properly belonged in the Want Ad section.” But it was the job rather than the man that was most severely criticized, for Vanocur was hired to head a special ABC News “investigative unit” that would report directly to Arledge. Given the time and visual demands of television, genuine investigative reporting is a high-sounding promise that is exceedingly difficult to fulfill, as the networks’ dismal Watergate record proved. An independent investigative unit seemed like the kind of unrealistic notion that a neophyte news director would jump at. Even Vanocur pleaded with Arledge to find another name for his team — say, “special projects” unit. “The two most overrated phrases in television,” Vanocur says, “are ‘investigative reporting’ and a ‘magazine show.” Once Arledge had hired Vanocur to take charge of the first he quickly set about planning the second.
While Arledge has hired much more than he has fired, there are at present several ABC News vice presidents who do very little these days besides unbend paperclips. (One such person suggested that this article be titled “Executive Suite.”) Early on, several correspondents have voiced their concerns more openly, and at least one, Ted Koppel, ABC’s capable diplomatic correspondent, sent in a letter of resignation after he learned that Sylvia Chase would take his place anchoring the weekend news — and at a considerably higher salary. Arledge handled the matter in a typical carrot-and-stick fashion, letting the date for Koppel’s resignation go by — much to the reporter’s discomfort — before meeting with him to discuss it, then soothing his wounded pride with a healthy raise.
The single most effective move that Arledge made to calm his jittery staff was to hire back Av Westin as executive producer of the “Evening News.” The two met several times before Westin was sufficiently assured that Arledge knew the difference between “allowing show biz to enhance the news or to interrupt it.” Ironically, he decided to accept the job when he learned that his new boss used the same security blanket as everyone else in TV news — the front page of the New York Times. Arledge held it up one day — a day when the Times revealed that as many as a million Chinese had died in an earthquake — and rhetorically asked Westin how many of the front page stories had appeared on the “Evening News” the night before. “None,” he yelled, his face reddening. “Not a single goddam one.”
It was probably no accident that Arledge chose the very day in mid-July that Westin started to work to move into his own offices at ABC News — he had found the perfect decoy. Not only was Westin highly regarded by the ABC News staff but in terms of news judgment he and Arledge seemed to quickly establish a remarkable rapport. (“We finish each other’s sentences,” Westin says.) In some ways Westin also shared the perspective of an outsider. In the year and a half since Bill Sheehan had fired him, he had worked as a consultant to local news stations across the country. “It was a real eye opener,” he says, recalling the time he was watching the CBS evening news at an affiliate in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and a piece about the Mideast came on — the kind of ho-hum story Westin himself had routinely aired hundreds of times because the Israeli-Arab conflict, like the White House, was almost a fixed department of the “Evening News.” “Here comes the nightly Jewish piece,” the local producer said. “Can’t you guys in New York find something else going on that’s worth reporting?” Westin left his consulting job determined not to put on the nightly Jewish piece.
In any argument about whether TV news should tell viewers what they wanted to know or what they should know, Westin met his new boss at least half way. He was in favor of telling viewers what they needed to know. Using a word frequently heard around ABC News these days (no doubt because Arledge himself has used it), Westin admits to a more “tabloid” approach to the news than his counterparts at other networks.
Like Arledge, Westin saw the need to pick up the pace of the “Evening News” with shorter, punchier stories, especially “back-of-the-book” stories that could be done well in advance and held for a news peg. Westin also liked to “personalize” the news as much as possible. “Look for the smallest entity in the story and try to use it to tell the larger tale,” he cautioned the “Evening News” staff in the first of a series of memos he sent out. Westin, too, thought the visual component of the news had to be given greater emphasis (“I am candidly distressed with the lack of imagination in pictures provided to illustrate our reports”). Meaningless street scenes used like “visual wallpaper” during a correspondent’s narration were banned.
Just as the danger of personalizing the news is that the larger story may never get told before 60-75 seconds tick by, so the pressure to find visually interesting stories can shade into gimmickry. Some weeks ago the ABC Evening News covered a press conference that Ralph Nader called to announce the formation of a consumer protection sports group called FANS — not exactly the chorus line at the Lido in terms of visual stimulation. But suddenly the shot of Ralph Nader standing before a bunch of reporters explaining that he’d like people to send in $9 membership fees to support his new organization turned into halfback Ralph Nader in full football uniform — the justification for the gimmick presumably being that he was wearing Number 9 on his jersey. One suddenly experienced a new fondness for meaningless street scenes.
Once Arledge had hired Westin he turned to his thorniest problem — the fact that his high-priced, much-ballyhooed anchor team was a miserable flop. Harry and Barbara had, in fact, invented a whole new kind of format: Unhappy Talk News. Despite their we-respect-one-another-and-have-learned-to-work-together denials, Walters and Reasoner clearly loathed one another. It showed on the air, most of all when they were trying to produce the sort of light, up-beat banter designed to prove that, much-publicized reports to the contrary, they didn’t loathe one another at all. At best the effort sounded like a couple with a rotten marriage putting on a front for company. At worst it sounded like lunchtime at a divorce hearing.
Arledge’s first solution was to turn a bad marriage into an amicable separation by banning the “two shot.” One unlamented day in July was the last time Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters appeared on camera together. Gone, too, was the undistinguished “ABC Evening News” set. But it was his next decision that really showed a touch of Arledge’s famed production genius. Even if they got along splendidly, Arledge wasn’t crazy about the two anchors he inherited, particularly Reasoner, who had a reputation for being lazy and a bit of a boozer. In an interview last winter Arledge praised Walters as “a great asset who has been mishandled,” then went on to say of Reasoner: “Harry has been on the program for 6 years and the show has been going steadily nowhere. The ratings seem to indicate he doesn’t have the strength. He has had his shot. It’s not that he has been held back.”
The plain truth was that there was only one anchorman on television and CBS had him under lock and key. If Arledge couldn’t win by the existing TV news rules he’d make up his own — namely, the subanchor format. The idea was to have several of his key correspondents, like Frank Reynolds in Washington and Peter Jennings in Europe, play anchorman of the day by introducing a major story in their area and then handing the microphone over to the reporter who covered it. The reporter could then be followed directly by a colleague covering a different aspect of the story or by the subanchor for another story in his area or by Barbara and Harry in New York for an unrelated story. The new format eliminated the redundancy of an anchorman introducing the major facts of a story for 30 seconds only to have them repeated for 60 more by a reporter on location. It saved time, so that several more stories could be squeezed into the 22 minutes and 29 seconds the “Evening News” has for editorial content. Best of all, Arledge had gone a long way toward solving his anchor problem by the simple expedient of ignoring them to death — or half to death, anyway, since the time Barbara and Harry were actually on the air, their “tell” time, had been reduced from about six minutes each broadcast to three. The next obvious step was to get them out of the studio completely; if you could make reporters into anchors you could do the opposite just as easily. Fortunately, Barbara Walters’ opinion of her news reading abilities wasn’t much higher than the next person’s and she was eager to report on stories as long as they were big stories, such as the Son of Sam capture, Cuba, and most recently and most successfully, Sadat’s visit to Israel. Reasoner proved somewhat more resistant. The first time he could be lured out from behind his desk was to cover the opening of the Cezanne exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, a half block from ABC’s corporate office; the next, for a piece on Yankee Stadium, a cab drive away.
The new format was not without its own problems. Reporters now have to film two leads to every story, one where they assumed they would be introduced by an anchor or subanchor and another where they “self-introduced,” in case a whiparound was planned. The production problems of a whiparound were an endless headache under deadline pressure and the subanchor concept, which groups several stories together, meant that certain minor stories received much more attention than they deserved simply because they took place in the same geographical area as a major one or focused on the same general theme or, however artificially, could be made to seem like they did. Recently, Frank Reynolds, having just subanchored a story on the space shuttle test in Nevada, said: “New space technology may help us to do things like spot forest fires. Here’s Steven Geer in California to report on a major forest fire there.” The multiplicity of faces along with the stepped-up pace could also lead to a confusing “March of Times” approach to the news. And no one knew yet if the “loneliness factor” would demand a return to the traditional anchor format the minute it was clear that the ratings were not improving. But at the moment it seemed like an ingenious idea and the amazing thing was that no one had thought of it before (although NBC did experiment for a time with multiple anchors after Chet Huntley retired). The anchorman, after all, was really a holdover from radio via the early “rip and read” days of TV news and isn’t especially suited to the fast pace of a far-flung visual medium.
Next, Arledge went about sprucing the show up visually with small cosmetic touches. He instituted a roll-forward “ABC Evening News” logo and a “quad” opening that announced the major stories of the day with a few seconds of film — the latter borrowed from “Wide World of Sports.” He added visuals before the “bumpers” to spotlight upcoming stories. He darkened the background against which Reasoner and Walters appeared in the studio and he told Walters to dress less fussily and gave her some much-appreciated directorial guidance, such as the fact that her tendency to drop her chin at the end of each story robbed her of authority.
The wilder visual experiments were relegated to the weekend news on the theory that no one watched it anyway, but they seemed neither revolutionary nor particularly useful. For no discernable reason a filmed report would slip into slow motion or be stop-framed. During one feature on the Panama Canal a split-screen technique was used, with Ann Compton narrating in Washington on one half of the screen while a ship made its way through a canal lock on the other. It worked better in the World Series with a runner leading off first base. If, indeed, elephants ever appear on the ABC news it will first happen over the weekend (dancing girls have already appeared there on a story dealing with banning sex in Boston). Until his recent promotion to vice president in charge of special events, the head of the weekend news show was Arledge’s pet producer, Jeff Grolnick, a young, bejeaned fellow who might well be described as something of a finger popper. Certainly, Grolnick’s visual model for his show can provide no comfort for TV news traditionalists. “If you want to learn how to cram a lot of information into a short time,” he points out, “look at the one-minute commercial.”
Beyond the hirings and firings and the format changes it was hard to say exactly what Arledge had to do with a particular broadcast of the “Evening News.” Although he had an office off the newsroom — where Westin sat at the head of a large horseshoe-shaped desk facing his staff — he almost never used it, preferring his other office at the ABC News building on the executive floor. On a day-to-day basis Arledge did indeed seem to be what Westin called a “hands-off executive.” He sent Westin a steady stream of memos and clippings suggesting possible stories, most of which never panned out. “Roone reminds me of Fred Friendly that way,” Westin says. “A hundred ideas come flying out, of which 90 are just about the world’s worst. Of the remaining ten, five or seven are as good as anybody else’s and three will be startling.” But when pressed for some examples of both extremes Westin’s memory fails him. Indeed, he can think of only a handful of Arledge’s story ideas that have come to fruition, one of which was a three-part series on TV ratings and another story about the appointment of a new Soviet deputy premier, where Arledge’s outside tip on the leading candidate proved eventually to be wrong. Most of the others are marginal sports stories, such as a feature on the fiftieth anniversary of Babe Ruth’s home run record and another on Jackie Robinson pegged to the fact that this year’s All Star Game was dedicated to him.
One of Arledge’s story suggestions proved to be the most controversial feature the ABC “Evening News” has done under his tenure — a five-and-a-half minute report on the new ABC sitcom “Soap.” Before it even aired in the fall the show itself had aroused considerable controversy for its sexual explicitness and seemed a perfectly proper subject for a back-of-the-book feature. Nor was there any objection to the report itself, which tried hard to balance the viewpoints of the network and its critics. It was the timing of the “Soap” feature that was suspect, for although it was originally scheduled to be aired several weeks before the start of the TV season, when the controversy was at its height, Arledge had it held up until the night before “Soap” premiered, at which time the long report inevitably had the appearance of a promo for the new series thinly disguised as news. To make matters worse, when Arledge learned that Westin had scheduled the story at the end of the broadcast, where a soft news feature would normally run, he called up at the last-minute and insisted that it be moved up in that night’s lineup for greater prominence.
Indeed, that kind of last-minute juggling of the lineup — particularly of stories that tie in with other ABC programs — seems to be Arledge’s principal contribution to the day-to-day operation of the “Evening News.” Arledge and Westin talk several times a day (a “Roone phone” provides them with a direct line), once in the early afternoon when a preliminary story lineup has been drawn up, again in the late afternoon when the lineup has been finalized and often after the first of three “feeds” has gone out to ABC affiliate stations. Arledge watches the early feed pencil in hand and if he is not happy with the order of the lineup, this is his last chance to make a change. Earlier in the day he might influence the selection of stories that make up the lineup rather than just their order, but putting together a nightly news show is a mad scramble even on slow days, a whirl of ”possibles” that funnel into the final adrenalin-soaked hour before air time, and Arledge doesn’t have anything like the control over the show that he does over, say, “Monday Night Football,” where he virtually owns the event he is broadcasting. On the first day I interviewed Westin last October, Arledge called up around four o’clock to ask if a rehearsal of the following day’s space shuttle test was in the lineup. “It was just a dry run,” Westin, who had earlier turned the story down, told Arledge. “From what I heard it wasn’t that dramatic.” There was a long pause while Arledge talked, after which Westin reluctantly agreed to “see if I can fire it up. I’m not sure we can at this hour.” It turned out that ABC News was planning a half-hour special on the space shuttle test the following night and Arledge wanted to build up as much audience interest as possible. By 6:00 p.m. he had his teaser on the air.
A short time later, with the opening game of the World Series two days away, Arledge insisted that a report on the upcoming event lead off the program. Filmed in New York and Los Angeles, the feature included shots of sold-out box offices, as the ABC correspondent said: “So for most of the fans the World Series will be seen on the small screen.” Needless to say, the precise channel of the small screen on which the World Series could be seen was ABC. (CBS’ lead that evening, a story on the acceptance of the State Department’s working papers for a Mideast summit, was relegated to a brief “tell” late in the ABC “Evening News” broadcast.) When an upcoming ABC program is not promoted by actual features on the “Evening News,” Arledge never fails to have it at least mentioned (two shows, the World Series and an ABC News special on Bing Crosby’s death, were touted one night), although so far he has avoided the outright kitchen-cutter huckstering that takes place on his sports shows.
It could fairly be said that at least now there is something to promote, for before Arledge took over ABC News specials appeared about as regularly as a comet in the night sky and were considerably less illuminating. Beyond the six-figure salaries he is paying and the new videotape and electronic equipment he is purchasing, Arledge’s clout at ABC can be seen in his ability to get unprofitable news specials on the air at all. Although as yet his shows have not preempted “Happy Days” or “Laverne and Shirley,” there have been nearly a dozen of them over the past six months and some, such as Bert Lance’s testimony before the Senate Banking Committee, were important news events that no other network covered live. (ABC also did a fine late-night Lance special that managed to put the whole affair in perspective while avoiding the cozy cliche of having a bunch of correspondents sitting around a table chewing the fat.) Others, however, were not covered by the competition for good reason: They were non-events that Arledge tried to puff into events as if they were lackluster NFL Games of the Week, which for the ambitious head of ABC News and Sports they no doubt were. A case in point was the program on the space shuttle test, the fifth in a series of eight tests, which featured Jules Bergman and Frank Reynolds standing near the launch pad for a half-hour with their fingers stuck in their ears. Still other specials, such as the one on Elvis Presley, were embarrassingly inept, although admittedly any program that begins by announcing that “‘Starsky and Hutch’ will be delayed for 30 minutes so that we can bring you the following special report” can’t be all bad. “Elvis, Love Me Tender” tried. “Elvis is dead but this isn’t an obituary,” Geraldo Rivera began in a statement that probably doesn’t belong on a program labeled news. “This is a tribute.” Rivera’s hip gushings were followed by Rona Barrett’s redundant ones. “I will never forget the night he returned to Las Vegas,” she enthused. “It is a night that will live with me forever.”
Like Rivera and Barrett, Arledge’s errors are most often errors of excess. On the few occasions when he has been directly involved in a story, it has helped if the story was big enough to match his overkill techniques. The Son of Sam capture really wasn’t, and Arledge’s direct involvement was responsible for the fact that ABC’s coverage was so overblown. He had received a post-midnight call alerting him of David Berkowitz’ arrest and had immediately gotten dressed and rushed down to police headquarters. In the immortal words of an ABC press release telexed around the country the next day: “Arledge, who is building a new division that will respond with on-the-spot reporting to major stories wherever they break … spent the night at police headquarters in lower Manhattan surprising friends and acquaintances who noted it was unusual for a network news president to involve himself so closely in the coverage of a story.” It was indeed. “When I walked in there and saw Arledge in shirtsleeves moving around his cameras,” said Bob Lipsyte, who was covering the event for the New York Post, “I thought for a minute I was at the Master’s.” The day after the ABC press release went out Dick Salant sent around a memo to CBS News employees saying that he, too, had been awakened with word of the arrest, but he had turned over and gone back to sleep, confident that his network had plenty of talented personnel who could take care of matters by themselves.
By way of contrast to the Son of Sam incident, ABC News’ coverage of Sadat’s visit to Israel was excellent, a class operation such as that network has rarely known. Arledge got his best people there quickly and with enough back-up support to cover a war no less a peace initiative. Television news tends to report news events like sports events even when the head of the sports department is not wearing both hats. It does best when the oppositions are sharp, the issues largely symbolic, the event filled with visually dramatic flag-waving ceremony. (This is why television covers an election year so much better than a Congressional debate for the former is a winner-take-all elimination tournament not unlike a sports season.) Sadat’s visit to Israel was Arledge’s kind of event, the Wide World of Politics — a weekend-long spectacular you could root for. Late on the morning of Sadat’s arrival, when Harry Reasoner kept apologizing for delaying the start of a college football game, there seemed a rough equivalency at work: Michigan vs. Ohio State for the Rose Bowl, Israel vs. Egypt for the Sinai.
In the end, though, Arledge’s success or failure in his new job will depend not as much on ABC’s coverage of such occasional spectaculars as on the day-to-day quality of its “Evening News” program. Here the returns are both mixed and incomplete. In general, the show has improved considerably under Arledge’s and Westin’s stewardship — the look is cleaner, the reporting more aggressive, the pace livelier. But too often important stories are given short shrift (“I joke with Av,” says White House correspondent Sam Davidson, “about leading the show with, ‘Today the Lord handed down ten commandments, the most important three of which are …’”). Thus far the subanchor concept has left the anchors in a kind of now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t limbo, although Arledge has indicated to a group of network affiliate owners that he intends to reduce the anchors’ roles further. Vanocur’s investigative unit has yet to produce a single major story or even receive a clear mandate from Arledge about what part it is to play in the overall news operation.
The content of the ABC “Evening News” has become somewhat more “tabloid,” with greater emphasis being given to sports and soft news features as well as such blood-and-guts fare as Son of Sam, a lead story (with a follow-up the next day) about a battered Michigan housewife who burned her husband to death and a piece about the British woman who tried to talk her elderly mother into taking an overdose of sleeping pills in front of a secreted police camera. Perhaps more important than individual stories is the fact that Arledge doesn’t work under the same moral constraints as most TV journalists, as an incident that occurred during the World Series demonstrated. Arledge had gotten advance word that the lives of two key Dodger players, Ed Garvey and Davie Lopes, had been threatened and he called Westin late in the afternoon with the scoop. Westin and his staff were against broadcasting the information before the game. “We can do it,” Westin told Arledge over the phone, “but it’ll bring out every kook in the sidewalk cracks. It’s the same as reporting a bomb threat in a theater.” Arledge argued weakly that if it affected the team’s playing that night the fans had a right to know in advance, but in the end he gave in to the staff’s adamant resistence and the death threats were never broadcast.
If the ABC “Evening News” is more sensational than the other networks it is a long way from being the National Enquirer — or even the New York Post — of the air. One has the feeling that Arledge has deliberately subdued his more commercial instincts along with his flashy dress. “He’s very aware of his image,” Westin says. “He knows that people are looking for Sybil the Soothsayer.” Arledge adds: “I’ve said from the beginning that I could double ratings in a week — just put Jack Anderson and Rona Barrett on as anchors and do an Enquirer. But I haven’t done it, have I?” And it’s perfectly true that despite all the dire predictions, he hasn’t. Nor have the ratings for the “Evening News” changed much since he took over, with ABC still pulling down under a 20 percent share of the audience, CBS about 30 percent and NBC halfway in between.
In the end Arledge is probably more important for what he is than for what he does. His very presence has given ABC News personnel the feeling that somebody up there in the network hierarchy cares. It is an exciting place to work right now. And Arledge’s flashy reputation really has struck fear into the hearts of a long-complacent opposition. He is perfectly right about their being uptight. One has the distinct impression that the next time Dick Salant gets a late-night call from the news desk he won’t roll over and go back to sleep quite so easily.
Not long ago Howard Cosell did a piece for the ABC “Evening News” marking the 50th anniversary of the Dempsey-Tunney heavy-weight championship. It was the kind of routine sports story that the “Evening News” is doing with disturbing regularity under Arledge’s influence, in this case consisting of Cosell’s voice-over narration to some fight footage. Now, Cosell’s script that night came from his reworking of a fact sheet on the fight prepared by a young ABC newswriter who had carelessly copied down information from several sources without including their attributions. Cosell chose to read one particular excerpt from the fact sheet nearly verbatim because the words had a certain ring to them. As it happened the words came from a well-known “I Can Hear It Now” radio broadcast marking the 25th anniversary of the same fight — and they had a certain ring because they were written and read by CBS News’ very own icon, Edward R. Murrow. When Salant heard the ABC “Evening News” that evening it must have seemed like his worst four-o’clock-in-the-morning nightmare come to life: The words of Edward R. Murrow out of the mouth of Howard Cosell. Salant quickly fired off an annoyed note to Arledge, who investigated the matter and wrote back a polite and properly contrite apology. But he was secretly gleeful and not a little proud. “They really are uptight,” he said of the incident. “But they’re watchin’ us. They’re really watching what we do.”
Received in New York on January 19, 1978
©1978 Richard Levine
Richard Levine, a free-lance writer, is an Alicia Patterson Foundation award winner. His fellowship subject is the making of the television season. This article may be published with credit to Mr. Levine as a Fellow of the Alicia Patterson Foundation. The views expressed by the author in this newsletter are not necessarily the views of the Foundation.