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'Operating Philosophy Is Fear' : Cbs Eyes Crises On Several Fronts

July 14, 1986|TOM SHALES | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — CBS going through another major crisis? Big deal, people might think. It might be bigger news if CBS were not going through a crisis. Now it has several crises going on at the same time. They should call it the Coronary Broadcasting System.

During one recent week, news about CBS was all bad: Dan Rather and "The CBS Evening News" learned they'd come in third in the ratings the week before, for the first time since October, 1981; CBS came in last in prime-time ratings the same week; and CBS Inc. revealed plans for yet more massive cutbacks and layoffs throughout the CBS-Broadcast Group.

Meanwhile, at "The CBS Morning News," that nice Forrest Sawyer and that sweet Maria Shriver, who were just starting to grow on everybody, learned that the new producer of the show, Susan Winston, wants them out. She wants almost everybody out. She says she's going to come in with a revolutionary new morning television program.

According to insiders, it will also be retitled so that the word news is nowhere to be seen.

Dan Rather did not pretend he didn't care about losing in the ratings when reached in his office in New York. "What happened was, two of the guys who work for two other very good outfits had good weeks," Rather said, referring to NBC's Tom Brokaw and ABC's Peter Jennings. "I have no excuses, no explanations. The responsibility is mine."

Ratings during summer months are not nearly so important as those taken during the regular season, and summer is a time when evening news ratings are traditionally volatile. Still, it can't do any good for CBS News morale when the flagship broadcast springs a leak.

"For so long, no matter what went wrong, you could always look to Dan and have that," one CBS producer moaned. "But with the 'Evening News' in third place, it's like there's no Santa Claus."

Another CBS staffer said one more crisis at this point is almost meaningless. "We're desensitized," the source said. "Everybody is on cruise control."

The last time CBS employees were told they would have to endure cutbacks and layoffs, the excuse given was that tons of money had been spent fighting the takeover attempt by Ted Turner. Employees were given the impression that one big wave of cuts would take care of it. But here comes CBS management again with more.

Sources within the company say the reason for more cuts is the threat of still more takeover attempts, and that the cuts are part of an effort to keep CBS stock at a high selling price. Insiders say a tug of war has developed between CBS Chairman Thomas Wyman and Loews Corp. Chairman Laurence Tisch, who now owns about 20% of the company's stock.

"There are people in executive suites who are simply sitting at their desks hoping the phone doesn't ring," one well-placed source says. "The operating philosophy is fear."

Such a sad fate for such a once-proud company. The official CBS line on the impending cuts--600 jobs trimmed from the Broadcast Group, including up to 100 jobs out of CBS News--is that they are necessitated by forecasts of lowered profits for network TV. But other sources indicate they are the result of bad management.

At the other two networks, executives in news and entertainment divisions are all but proclaiming the end of the CBS era. For 30 years, CBS was almost always No. 1 in prime-time ratings, but it completed last season in second place and some industry insiders think that in the season ahead, it could actually fall to third, behind a resurgent ABC.

Privately, insiders say the third-place finish for Rather may not turn out to be a one-time thing.

NBC's spectacular rise in the prime-time ratings couldn't help but have a spillover effect on "NBC Nightly News," even though it is a listless broadcast with a lightweight anchor. NBC's "Today" show is now a strong front-runner, and NBC handily dominates late-night as well.

As for the perpetually ill-fated "CBS Morning News," the current front-runners to anchor reportedly are Linda Ellerbee, who has just left an ungrateful and disorganized NBC News, and Charles Osgood, the quaint radio poet. These personalities don't seem consistent with Winston's reported plans for the show, which are to make it higher-powered and faster-paced.

The chances that it will succeed after all these years appear to be about one in eight million.

Network television is a rough racket, and the reckless deregulation of broadcasting by the Federal Communications Commission has made it rougher. But it would be folly for CBS to blame its troubles on anyone but the people who are running CBS.

CBS has succeeded in shooting itself in the eye.

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