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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Unkindest Cut At Cbs: Jess Marlow

August 25, 1986|HOWARD ROSENBERG

"Surprised is hardly the word--I was shocked," said gentleman anchorman Jess Marlow about the new contract he rejected at KCBS Channel 2 calling for a cut in pay.

Cut? Severe gash is more like it.

Marlow, who stopped anchoring the 5 p.m. news on Channel 2 earlier this month although his six-year contract runs through Nov. 22, said the station wanted to halve his pay.

While "money was definitely a factor," though, Marlow insisted that he was equally unhappy with a frothier, drastically revamped Channel 2 news format that is set to debut Sept. 15. It's a gamble, intended to lift the station from its traditional trailing position in local news ratings among network-owned stations.

Because of the new format, Marlow said that he would have wanted to leave Channel 2 even if he had been offered his same salary.

Marlow is said to be negotiating to return to KNBC Channel 4, where he spent 14 years and where his Channel 2 co-anchor, Colleen Williams, is now a weekend anchor after also recently leaving KCBS in a reported pay dispute.

Although he refused to divulge his Channel 2 salary, there were reports that it was $700,000, about to be slashed to $350,000. "It's fair to say that I was asked to take a 50% cut," Marlow said Friday.

It wasn't the cut that shocked him, he said, but its severity. "It became apparent a year ago that I did not figure in the station's plans. When they took me off the 6 and the 11 (he had been anchoring both newscasts) and put me on the 5, the handwriting was on the wall. But 50%?"

The smaller contract that Marlow turned down reflected "new economic realities in the television industry," Channel 2 said at the time. And those realities have touched CBS Inc., the station's parent company, which has been writhing in economic agony.

Even the reduced pact, however, would have paid Marlow a dream sum by most standards. And it does appear to Marlow that in announcing his departure, Channel 2 leaked financial information about his contract designed to depict him as a money-grubber.

Marlow can understand how ordinary people may resent enormous anchor salaries. There are probably several Los Angeles anchors with annual wages between $500,000 and $1 million. "They're absolutely correct in feeling that way," he said. "But this is getting more and more like major-league sports. You have to look at it as a short-term career and go with whatever the market will bear."

A 56-year-old grandfather, Marlow spent a decade as a railroad telegrapher before ascending the anchor ranks, from Rock Island, Ill., to San Jose (where he was also news director), and then joining KNBC as a street reporter in 1966.

"So I've never felt guilty about my salary," he said, "because in the first 15 years I worked, I never made as much as a good carpenter or a good plumber.

"Look," Marlow added, "there's no question that all networks have begun to hammer anchors quite hard, and I don't question that there is some justification to it. But I've yet to find a TV executive who's taken a pay cut to acknowledge the new economic realities, even though it was their stations that produced the decline."

On paper, the coming Channel 2 news format--the station calls it "the next generation of local news"--reads like something for viewers with attention spans of 3-year-olds. There are six 20-minute segments--most with separate themes--and a 30-minute segment leading to "The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather" at 6:30 p.m., a half hour earlier than the network newscast now airs in Los Angeles.

"I knew there would be changes, but I had no idea that there would be such a dramatic turnaround," Marlow said. "The priorities are clearly different than they were before and I can't imagine why the new format would hold great appeal for a reporter working inside. I don't think you can do adequate justice to the important stories of the day in 20 minutes."

The new format clearly will not accommodate the kind of bold news moves occasionally made by Channel 2 in the past, such as devoting almost a half hour to a single story. That happened when Channel 2 assigned Marlow and David Garcia to head south for a weeklong series on Central America in 1983. The first report ran 28 minutes and subsequent ones were 18 to 20 minutes, almost unheard of for a local TV station.

"The present management (General Manager Frank Gardner and News Director Erik Sorenson) have made it clear that they aren't interested in that," Marlow said. "Now they're going to do 20 minutes of news and fill out the rest of the hour with features."

Marlow dismisses the theory that the new format was mandated by the network. "I think it's home-grown. I was told it was largely Sorenson's plan, based on market research that life-style pieces are what will work in Southern California. Gardner's view is that everything must be reduced to individuals, so I'm sure he concurs."

As an aging anchor with perhaps no marketability outside Los Angeles, Marlow gambled in walking out on Channel 2, something that he and Phyllis, his wife of 37 years, faced squarely. "I don't set the screen on fire, so my value is my credibility and familiarity," he said. "But I looked at my circumstances and found that I could live without ever having to work again--not in the style I'm accustomed, but I could certainly survive."

Marlow said that he broke amicably with Channel 2. "I have no animosity toward Gardner and Sorenson," he said. "We parted friends."

Regardless of his next destination, Marlow, obviously, is the same man he was when he arrived at Channel 2 eight years ago.

A gentleman.

2 lines of 12 p for MARLOW. It's just a mugshot, so try name and quote, ples.

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