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May 12, 1985|Tom Shales | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Despite attacks from rats, bats, lizards, roaches, technical gremlins and Asian dysentery, the two networks that originated live broadcasts from Vietnam to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the war's end say they are glad they went. And spokesmen for CBS News say they're glad they stayed with filmed and taped reports.

"A picture is not worth 10,000 words if all you see is an anchorman swatting bugs in the dark," huffed CBS News vice president Howard Stringer.

Bryant Gumbel, co-anchor of NBC's "Today" show, did his live reports at night, Vietnam time, and TV lights attracted hordes of winged creatures. Gumbel had to be sprayed with insect repellent and wrapped up like a mummy prior to each broadcast, then unraveled just before going on the air.

But Steve Friedman, executive producer of "Today," said the trip was worth it. "It was for us. We did it differently than the other guys. We had vignettes of life in Vietnam that the others didn't do," Friedman said. And before leaving Ho Chi Minh City, "Today" senior producer Marty Ryan said from Vietnam, "Some things I've seen here I'll remember all my life. Coming here was something we should have done. Absolutely."

Despite Friedman's bravado and Ryan's hope, the Vietnam experience threw cold water on the whole idea of live originations from foreign locales. Once they got there, ABC and NBC really discovered there was not a lot to send back home that couldn't have been sent just as well on tape or film.

As the coverage wore on, one network news executive said, "I think all the networks may be scratching their heads and saying, 'What is this?' It was something that had to be covered, but no news is being made. In a way, Vietnam coverage is our Vietnam; we keep spending more money, and staying one more day, in the hopes there'll be a story soon."

It cost NBC an estimated $1.2 million for the Vietnam excursion, which also included pieces for "NBC Nightly News." ABC News is believed to have spent about the same amount, most of it on three live "Nightline" shows that originated from southeast Asia but which were plagued by technical problems.

Stringer of CBS insists that his network's decision not to do live broadcasts from Vietnam "was not a financial decision; it was an editorial decision." But CBS may have spent as much as $500,000 less on its coverage than the competition did.

Even so, it did not get scooped.

Sources at NBC and ABC admit they were hoping for some big news story during the trip, specifically a breakthrough on the MIA question. Both had interviews with Le Duc Tho, North Vietnam's negotiator at the Paris peace talks, but he was intransigent. NBC probably got more from him because Gumbel taped two hours of talk with Le Duc Tho and that was edited down for broadcast.

"When you sit there for two hours, you can usually get 12 minutes out of it," says Friedman.

ABC's one-hour live "Nightline" from Vietnam on April 29 was haunted by bad luck and bad tempers. Le Duc Tho rattled on and on even when Ted Koppel, unusually flustered, tried to cut him off.

The program had opened with live shots of a parade staged in Vietnam to celebrate the anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal (NBC also had live coverage of it) and that irked guest Henry Kissinger, a paid consultant to ABC News.

"I think that there is something demeaning about having the three networks covering a victory parade over the United States . . ." Kissinger said on the air, angrily. Kissinger said further that the broadcast represented the kind of coverage during the war that helped insure "a defeat that we inflicted on ourselves."

Instead of engaging Kissinger in discussion of these rather fascinating subjects, Koppel insisted on plodding along according to plan, departing only for the occasional technical snafu. This was not to be "Nightline's" finest hour.

Little was to be gained, either, from watching Bryant Gumbel play conning tower to swarms of moths and mosquitoes. Though also hampered by technical problems, co-anchor Jane Pauley's reports from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall were more to the point of the Vietnam story and what should be remembered. Stringer says the "circus" in Vietnam proved that going live from a remote location is not always the best policy.

"Going live can be interesting and informative," said Stringer, who fought in Vietnam himself, "but when you're in a controlled environment like Vietnam, it can be of little real value."

During these past days of so much talk about the "lessons" of Vietnam, the networks may have learned one of their own.

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