Saving CBS News
| American Journalism Review
| From AJR, April 1997|
Saving CBS News
That's the challenge facing President Andrew Heyward. But running a network news operation, and measuring success or failure, have changed dramatically since the network's glory days.
By David Zurawik
CBS NEWS PRESIDENT ANDREW HEYWARD IS NOT AN EASY man to get at behind all his metaphors. Ask him about the future of the nightly newscasts and he says, ``It's like the three network newscasts are sitting in a lifeboat, which is slowly leaking...and none of us wants to be the first to jump."
David Zurawik is the television critic for the Baltimore Sun.
Ask him about running a news division these days and he says, ``Network news executives cannot operate in an ivory tower free from business pressures.... The realities of the business today mean that network news has to navigate a course just like everybody else in these choppy, choppy, uncharted waters."
The first time we interviewed Heyward for this story in June 1996six months after he had taken over the news division from a beleaguered Eric Ober to become the network's seventh news president in 15 yearsHeyward described the situation at CBS News by saying, ``I do think that we dug ourselves in a hole. But I think we are now standing up inside that hole and starting to climb out.
``I've got to tell you, we've got a lot of problems here. The evening news is in third place, we're redoing the morning, and `48 Hours' is up against `ER' [the number-one rated show in network television, according to Nielsen].... That's a deep hole. I inherited a mess."
In January of this yearone year after he took overwe interviewed Heyward again. This time in California in the posh Tournament of Roses suite at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel in Pasadena. It was just before Heyward was to go downstairs to the Versailles Ballroom to unveil a new prime time newsmagazine, ``Coast to Coast," before 150 or so television reporters and critics from around the country.
``The view a year later has changed for the better, but it's like when you're on a hike and you get to the top of a hill, but it's not the summit," he said, looking out over the hotel's famed Horseshoe Gardens. ``When you're climbing up that first hill, you sort of have the illusion that maybe that's the summit. But when you get to the top, you realize this is just the first of many hills we have to climb."
So what is Heyward really saying about the state of CBS News behind all the metaphors of water, hills and holes? In the book ``Metaphors We Live By," George Lakoff and Mark Johnson claim that, while metaphors are often used as an attempt to mask real feelings, a careful analysis of the metaphor will reveal how the speaker truly sees the world.
You don't need any deep analysis to know that climbing hillseven if the summit is nowhere in sightis probably better than cowering in a hole. And everyone agrees that it has been a year of great activity for the 46-year-old Heyward and CBS Newsfrom the complete overhaul of ``This Morning" to what Heyward says is the largest single hiring spree in CBS News history, with 150 staffers added for the March 31 launch of a new cable channel, Eye On People.
Heyward has been running the CBS shop at West 57th Street in New York City for 15 months, and 1) the evening news is still in third place, 2) ``This Morning" has been redone, but the ratings are barely better than they were before, and 3) ``48 Hours" is still up against ``ER," still the number one network show in prime time.
By traditional standards it seems, so far, it has been a Sisyphean kind of reign for Heyward. But in the late 1990s are the traditional standards fair? And are they the best ones by which to measure a network news division and its president today?
WE FIRST STARTED REPORTING THIS STORY SHORTLY after Heyward was named president. We wanted to find out if he could save CBS News. But what does ``save" mean?
If it means leading CBS News back to the kind of stature it enjoyed in the era of the Richard Salant presidency, during most of the 1960s and '70s, there is a consensus among former and current network news executives and correspondents, as well as media critics. That is that network news has changed in such cosmic ways in the last decade or so, with such radically different standards of success and failure, that it is virtually impossible to compare a news president today to any that came before the mid-1980s.
``Given the new order, unless you're prepared to throw yourself on a hand grenade, you have to be a different kind of news president today than Dick Salant," says Walter Cronkite, who was CBS' anchorman during the Salant era.
So these days, yes, Heyward could preside over an also-ran nightly newscast, a morning show all but given over to local stations and a ``48 Hours" that gets whipped in the ratings by ``ER" and still be deemed a success by the people who count mosthis corporate masters at Westinghouse Electric Corp.
If judged by traditional standards, Heyward's first 15 months have not amounted to all that much. But rate his performance in terms of some of the new corporate and global realities of network news, and you have someone who looks as if he might be the very model of a network news president for the 21st century, barring any exploding GM trucks or Food Lion verdicts.
``I don't see how you could compare a network news president today with the ones from the '50s, '60s or '70s," says Howard K. Smith, who succeeded Edward R. Murrow as CBS News' chief European correspondent before becoming an anchorman and commentator at ABC.
``There are the new corporate owners with their very different agendas and insistence that news make money. Then there are all the new forms of competition from CNN to the Fox News Channel. It is simply a different world. And, I might add, I think it is a far more difficult job today because, while the emphasis is on ratings and finding new ways to make money and all that, just slip up once in a major way journalistically and see what happens."
Witness Michael Gartner, who resigned as president of NBC News in 1993 amid the controversy over producers rigging the test-crash of a General Motors pickup truck for ``Dateline NBC." Gartner initially defended their actions. But that journalistic faux pas obscured the fact that he had managed to finally set NBC on the road to huge prime time profits with ``Dateline"a profit estimated to be in the range of $20 million that yearafter the network had failed 17 times to create a successful newsmagazine.
Andrew LackGartner's successor at NBC News and currently the most successful network news president with the top-rated nightly newscast as well as the greatest cable and global news presenceagrees that there are new standards for assessing network news presidents.
``With all due respect to those who came before, there is no comparison between the job today and what it was for the generation of Dick Salant and Reuven Frank [NBC news president from 1968 to '73 and 1982 to '84]," says Lack, who worked for Salant before moving to NBC.
``There have been several sea changes. First, in terms of competition. Initially, Salant didn't even have an ABC News to worry about. It was just CBS and NBC.... Then you have the business aspect that became so important after the founders sold the companies. Reuven Frank and Dick Salant were not running a business, just a journalistic organization. For them, the question was what would be on the evening news. For us, it's whether there will be an evening news."
Lack says his job is somewhat more complicated than Heyward's because NBC moved aggressively into cable television and global news in recent years, while Laurence Tisch did the opposite at CBS. But those are added duties that Westinghouse clearly wants Heyward to take on as it tries to catch up. ``Half my day is now spent dealing with global matters. I'm operating five different chan- nels [NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, NBC Europe and MSNBC Europe]. I'm sorry, it's up to seven or eight now with the Asia and Latin American channels," Lack says.
``In the time of Salant and Frank, they might have a nice bureau in Tokyo and Hong Kong with a couple of people in each. I have 256 people in Hong Kong, and they are as important a part of my day as the people working at `Today' or `Nightly News' or `Meet the Press.' "
For his part, Frank says, ``The job of news president has changed so much from the time I left it a dozen years ago that it's a different job description. They do different thingssuch different things that my only real feeling about it is that I'm glad I'm not doing it anymore."
Describing his primary concerns during his first tour of duty, Frank says, ``It was just to put out the product and keep it going. You had to be popular and you had to have circulation, but we were working according to the oligopoly of the three networks. We worked within that. We didn't have threats. We looked only at each other, and we did news according to what you might call traditional standards."
THE STORY OF HOW WE WENT from network oligopoly to the network news world we know today started in the early 1980s with technology that made newsgathering more affordable. Local stations no longer had to rely on the networks. Instead they could use new satellite technology to gather more news on their own, as well as turn to new cable operations like CNN for national and international coverage.
That shift in network-affiliate power and the rise in competition was followed in the mid-1980s by the watershed sale of the networks by their founders. The new corporate owners insisted that news divisions become profit centers.
Nothing turns a profit for the news division like a successful prime time newsmagazine (see ``Money Changes Everything," April 1993). Heyward, who came to CBS News 16 years ago as a producer for the evening news, saw his star rise after he created ``48 Hours" in 1987 and proved the magazine could make money while getting trounced in the ratings. By the time he left ``48 Hours" in 1992 for ``Eye to Eye With Connie Chung" and then for the executive producer's job at the evening news, the newsmagazine's audience had grown and the show was making an estmated $100 million a year for CBS.
``I don't think it is an accident that the three network news presidents today are all producers," Heyward says, referring to the fact that he, Lack and Roone Arledge, president of ABC News until he became chairman last month, have experience producing prime time programming.
David Westin, 44, succeeded Arledge as president. Westin, a lawyer, had been president of the television network and president of production for ABC. The move was, in part, ABC's way of responding to the dual demands put on network presidents today.
At CBS, Lack created the newsmagazine ``West 57th Street" as well as ``Eye to Eye With Connie Chung." At NBC, he has expanded ``Dateline" from one to three nights a week. As head of sports at ABC, Arledge brought ``Monday Night Football" to prime time. Then, early in his tenure at news, he helped develop and nurture ``20/20," the second-longest-running and most profitable newsmagazine behind CBS' ``60 Minutes."
``There's no doubt about it," Heyward says, ``expanded prime time productionand, in the case of ABC, also late night [production] with `Nightline'became the key to that profitability.... So yes, the ability to mount new prime time programmingwhether newsmagazines or specialsor, find ways to make already existing programs more successful is a major part of any president's job today."
By that standard, Heyward's record thus far is mixed, though one victory for CBS News has already taken place on his watch. When he took over last year, NBC announced it was going to expand ``Dateline" to go head-to-head with ``60 Minutes," which had dropped in the ratings and was being dismissed by some as past its prime (see ``The Economics of Television," March 1996).
By the first week of Mayafter a run of several impressive reports on Louis Farrakhan, Muhammad Ali, Bruce Springsteen and jury tampering in the O.J. Simpson trialthe show was back in Nielsen's top 10 and on the cover of TV Guide with the headline: ``Comeback Kids: The feisty vets of `60 Minutes' put the dark days behind them and clobber the competition."
Heyward picks his words carefully when talking about the ``60 Minutes" comeback. The show is, after all, the cash cow of CBS News, and he doesn't want to say anything to rock the boat of Don Hewitt, the show's 74-year-old producer.
``I would love to take credit for it but, unfortunately, I don't think I can, except at the margins," Heyward says. ``Don Hewittlet's hope that you and I, when we are in our 70s, we have that competitive firewhile he might not acknowledge that it was the challenge from `Dateline,' there's no question that the competitive environment reinvigorated the program."
Adds Heyward, ``Where I would say I chipped in is in making clear to everybody that there was no scenario in which we were going to compromise the integrity of the show." He is referring to the darkest of ``60 Minutes' " days, in November 1995, when top lawyers at CBS convinced Hewitt to pull a report featuring Jeffrey Wigand, the former scientist with Brown & Williamson Tobacco who said industry executives knew nicotine was addictive (see ``Fighting Back," January/February 1996).
While Heyward gets some credit for pushing ``60 Minutes" to pursue fresh stories rather than relying on summer rerunsa move that means more money for the corporate coffers and better viewing for the audiencehe also deserves some blame for the misguided addition of Molly Ivins, P.J. O'Rourke and Stanley Crouch as rival commentators. The trio was quickly dropped.
With ``48 Hours" the problem is not so much getting stomped in the ratings by ``ER" as it is the show's failure to be more competitive with ABC's ``Turning Point." Seeking a quick fix, Heyward approved a change from the show's single-topic formulaa move questioned by Dan Rather, the show's anchor. Heyward is now calling the program ``a work in progress" while acknowledging, ``We may have moved a little too far from the original format."
As for ``Coast to Coast," after a three-week run this winter, it will get six more weeks of tryout this summer. But it is unlikely to make the fall schedule thanks to what is clearly the highest visibility move of Heyward's presidency: the signing last month of former NBC ``Today" anchorman Bryant Gumbel to a five-year deal reportedly worth more than $25 million. With the deal comes a guarantee that Gumbel will be anchoring a new prime time newsmagazine in the fall. Gumbel's show will give CBS the same three hours of prime time news programming as NBC and ABC.
Beating out NBC and ABC for Gumbel not only makes Heyward look good on the newsmagazine front, it also helps him earn high grades in terms of talent.
Jon Lafayette, who covers network news for the trade publication Electronic Media, says the main job of any network news president is ``to assemble and deploy talent." As for Heyward, ``his primary mission is talent acquisition," says Lafayette.
Prior to the signing of Gumbel, there was a lot of activity with mixed results. Victories included an unusual deal so that ``60 Minutes" could use CNN's Christiane Amanpour as a part time correspondent, as well as signing lifestyle maven Martha Stewart as a contributor to ``This Morning." But, with neither giving up her day job, they are only tangentially associated with CBS News.
Heyward likes such part time arrangements, but he saw one backfire when he hired attorney Robert Shapiro to provide commentary on the O.J. Simpson civil trial. The public explanation for Shapiro's abrupt dismissal is that neither Shapiro nor Heyward anticipated what a problem Shapiro would have with attorney-client privilege and, once it became obvious, they agreed to end the relationship. But why didn't Heyward foresee the problem from the start?
In terms of full time hires, Heyward lured Alison Stewart away from MTV for ``Coast to Coast," ``48 Hours" and ``This Morning," saying he wants to bring ``new voices and more diversity onto the air." But he lost out to ABC News in the battle to sign up former Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos.
The prize recruits Heyward had been after were Gumbel and Diane Sawyer. At the moment, the Gumbel signing makes Heyward look like a winner. It also makes Sawyer less important. ``Even if you get her, how do you use her?" Lafayette asks. With Gumbel guaranteed a newsmagazine, there's little or no room for a Sawyer show in prime time on CBS.
``And, if she wants the evening news, that's got to be very carefully orchestrated," Lafayette adds. ``You don't want her to be the Debbie Norville of the evening news, pushing Rather out.... That's a thing that's got to be managed very carefully or the whole applecart blows up."
ANOTHER MAJOR ASPECT of Heyward's mandate is to provide programming for CBS' cable channel and help create more of an international presence for CBS News, two areas in which it lags far behind NBC.
``I think all of us at CBS feel that we need to expand out of the core business," says Peter Lund, the network president and CEO. ``And the cable business is a natural place for us to go."
Echoing those words, Heyward says, ``I do think it's essential for us to have a cable presence. Cable is important for amortization of newsgathering costs and extension of the brand name.... Without any ad hominem attacks [on Tisch], one of the ways we got in this hole is that while our competitors were investing in cable, CBS was not."
Eye On People is not a 24-hour news channel. Like Disney brass at ABC, the Westinghouse owners of CBS decided the field of 24-hour news channels was already full enough with MSNBC and Fox News signing on last year.
Lloyd Werner, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Group W Satellite Communications (the Westinghouse division responsible for Eye On People), describes it as a ``24-hour general entertainment network focusing on people and personalities whose stories move, inspire and instruct us."
About 70 percent of its programming will be produced by the news division, according to Jonathan Klein, CBS News' executive vice president and Heyward's chief lieutenant. The 150 new staffers are working in a building adjoining the CBS News offices and broadcast center in New York, producing 14 programs.
Klein described one of the programs``Today's People," which will air Monday through Friday at 10 p.m.by saying, ``It will draw upon all the material that comes into CBS News headquarters every day from around the world, from our bureaus across America, from our affiliates.
``So, for example, if the brush fires were threatening homes in Malibu again, the CBS News crew that's out there anyway could follow a heroic firefighter or a father desperately trying to get his family out of the house and save their possessions," explains Klein. ``And instead of turning around a minute-30-second piece for the evening news that night, they can turn around a 20-minute piece of real-life drama for `Today's People.' "
The new channel's importance to Westinghouse was underscored when Werner was asked if there is any concern about ``Today's People" siphoning viewers from a 10 p.m. CBS newsmagazine like ``48 Hours" or a drama like ``Chicago Hope."
``We own CBS and we own CBS Eye On People," Werner says, ``so, either way, they are watching us and we win. It is also a way to promote CBS to a group of people not watching CBS, which we can't do now, which ABC can do, and NBC can do and Fox can do."
The message is clear: To be president of a network news division today, you better understand what terms like ``synergy," ``vertical integration" and ``economies of scale" mean and be able to use them as guideposts in helping the parent company make money in cable. It is too early to give Heyward a grade, but he at least has got what is essentially a CBS Eye On People production company up and running and ``churning this material out," as Klein puts it.
Heyward says he's also going to spend more time in the coming months on TeleNoticias, the Spanish-language news channel headquartered in Hialeah, Florida, that Westinghouse bought last year. TeleNoticias offers CBS another way of getting on cable and reaching a growing demographic group. The Spanish broadcast will also increase CBS' international presence when it expands into Central and South America.
But the most decisive action taken by Heyward so far is with ``This Morning," a longtime loser for CBS News. Faced with the prospect of more affiliates threatening to preempt the entire two-hour network show in favor of locally produced or syndicated programs, Heyward retooled the program and offered stations a chance to essentially split the difference with one hour each of local and network programming.
``It's based on a realistic assessment of the situation," Heyward explains. ``If I had just gone in with a new anchor team saying it was magically going to fix 30 years of failure in the time period, I'd have an affiliate revolt on my hands. We just have used up our credibility. We had a ton of trouble and had to try something bold."
As of Januaryfive months into the new morning shownational ratings were up marginally from a 1.9 to a 2.3. With each rating point equal to about 980,000 television households, that's a circulation increase of about 400,000 homes, still far behind its rivals.
While that number might seem impressive to some newspaper editors, in the world of network television, it isn't. Given the imprecise nature of Nielsen ratings with an audience that small, even Heyward acknowledges that the numbers are inconclusive.
``I don't think the plan for the morning has quite turned out the way that Andrew wanted it to," says James Endrst, television critic for the Hartford Courant. ``I think there's some disappointment there." But even if the retooled ``This Morning" fails, Heyward has shown his bosses at Westinghouse that he will think innovatively and locally. Westinghouse owns and operates 14 stations covering 33 percent of all households. In Baltimore, for example, the Westinghouse-owned WJZ-TV is doing better in the ratings from 7:00 to 8:00 a.m. with its own programming than it did when it carried ``This Morning."
At this point, it is one of the only Westinghouse stations that can make that claim, but if enough Westinghouse-owned stations made more money with local programming than they did with CBS ``This Morning," would it matter to the corporate bosses what kind of morning news product Heyward put out?
ONE MIGHT WELL WONDER whether there is any room left for journalism in the new job description of a network president. The good news is that there is, but it's complicated by changing definitions of news and the difficulty in differentiating between what is genuine commitment to journalism and what is only lip service.
``There is an underlying presumption here that Salant and Frank were journalists, and we today are just businessmen," NBC's Lack says. ``I hate being cast as just a businessman. I'm a journalist as well, and I think it's a cheap shot to say we're just businessmen and don't do the news as well as they used to. In my humble opinion, we do it better."
Barry Sherman, a professor of journalism at the University of Georgia and director of the Peabody Awards, says he believes traditional journalistic values survive at CBS News under Heyward, and he offers as evidence the Peabody given to the news division last year for its coverage of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
``The reason the board awarded it to CBS," Sherman says, ``is that it showed that it still had the credibility, commitment and manpower to provide important coverage, analysis, background and interpretation in the finest tradition of CBS News.
``Clearly, it no longer has the paramount reputation for television news, but CBS remains a credible news operation under Andy Heyward."
Endrst, too, cites journalistic standards when asked for his assessment of Heyward, saying, ``It depends on whether you look at it externally or internally. Ratings-wise, obviously the ``Evening News" is in third place, and I don't think you can find any sign that it's going to move up any time soon.
``But internally I think Andrew represents some core values that are important to a lot of people who work there.... I think morale is much improved under him, because he evokes those traditional core values of CBS News."
Ultimately, Heyward must survive in the undefined and ambiguous space his boss, Lund, creates when he is asked what Heyward has to do to be judged a success. ``When all is said and done, his number one job is to see to it that CBS News is as good as it can be in the business of gathering news," Lund says. ``He has to balance that in this day and age with the necessity to do it within the confines of an organization that has a profit-and-loss bottom line."
What that translates to is: Make more money with news, but don't embarrass us journalistically. Give us 24 hours of news programming that we can use to sell on our new cable channel as entertainment. Think locally in terms of what's best for our owned stations, but get global with TeleNoticias and try to catch up to NBC. Get a Gumbel or a Sawyer, but make sure that if you do, they bring both prestige and profits.
To borrow one of his metaphors, Heyward has so far shown an ability to navigate those waters comfortably. The metaphor he's living by as a network president? "Remember Linda Blair in `The Exorcist'the way her head spun around in every direction? Well, these days that's me."###
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