Friendly Fire At Convention

September 01, 1986|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

SALT LAKE CITY — They attended various panels, inspected "fly-away" satellite up-links, debated the Ku-Band versus the C-Band, and heard NBC anchor Tom Brokaw fret that most college broadcast students to whom he talks want to be anchors, not reporters.

But save for wide interest in satellite technology, it was routine convention fare--until Fred Friendly's speech. He said local news is where the hope and action is now, accused network news of sacrificing substance for ratings and urged millionaire network anchormen to voluntarily take pay cuts to help save the jobs of their colleagues.

At the end of his address, some 2,000 broadcast news directors and station executives attending the 41st annual meeting of the Radio-Television News Directors Assn. gave the former CBS News president a 45-second standing ovation.

Friendly's speech Friday night at the cavernous Salt Palace center concluded a week of conventioneering in which, among other things, a record 165 exhibitors showed up to hawk their high-tech goods, syndicated news programs and a variety of other offerings.

The wares ranged from satellite trucks to the work of much-criticized news research consultant Frank Magid, who offered "a full line of services, from coaching and nationwide talent searches to promotion and marketing assistance."

But it was Friendly who stole the show with his praise for the growth and future of local TV news and his lamentions about the network kind--although in speaking of the latter, he said his vanity isn't such that "I need to enhance the past by spitting on the present."

Often quoting his late CBS colleague and mentor, Edward R. Murrow, Friendly said what he often has said in interviews: that were he starting over, he'd want to be the news director of a major local station, not a network news producer or president.

Local television, he said, now is "where the news audience, the technology and certainly the air time are--often 90 minutes or two hours each night--while the networks are reduced to 22 minutes or less each night."

Without naming the company he quit in 1966 but clearly referring to CBS and its decision to drop the "CBS Morning News" in January, he also asserted that "at least one network will soon have no morning television news worthy of that name."

(CBS has said the first 90 minutes of its planned new three-hour morning effort will offer "hard news.")

Because of an increasing emphasis on the bottom line by the networks and because of new satellite technology, "network news . . . is not what the news used to be," said Friendly, 71, now a Columbia University journalism professor.

"Locked in fierce ratings battles over a fraction of a point, the networks continue to doctor and meddle with their product to maintain the numbers. Substance is being sacrificed for the sensational tabloid snapshots in the constant search for brevity and pace."

He conceded that networks still "do provide a swift and almost instantaneous unifying force" during national crises.

But many, he added, worry about the "depth and the permanence" of the networks' commitment to news. He cited recent layoffs of CBS and ABC news producers and correspondents and what he called the networks' reluctance to interrupt profitable entertainment shows for anything less than "acts of terrorism or grave national catastrophe."

He also assailed the high salaries paid such network news anchors as NBC's Brokaw and CBS' Dan Rather, who earn more than $1 million annually, and ABC's Peter Jennings, and correspondents Barbara Walters of ABC and Mike Wallace of CBS' "60 Minutes."

The networks' "insatiable drive for revenue" is not limited to management, he said: "I am equally concerned, in fact embarrassed, by the financial appetites of the anchor stars and their hustling agents who play one network against another" for million-dollar salaries.

"All this, while producers, correspondents and camera operators are being laid off or early-retired. Brokaw, Rather, Jennings, Walters, Wallace and all the others are not quarterbacks or pitchers or centers with fragile knees and eight-year career risks.

"They have virtual lifetime tenure."

He drew a 10-second burst of applause when he said network news stars should "volunteer a cut in pay to provide the salaries of able colleagues who are desperately needed to keep network news the national asset which their mandate requires."

Friendly, who was given the convention's Paul White award, made annually in the memory of the first news director at CBS, ended his speech by quoting from Murrow's address to their convention 28 years ago.

He reminded them that Murrow had then said of TV: "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, it even can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it for that purpose. Otherwise, it is merely wires and lights in a box."

Were Murrow alive and at the convention, Friendly said, those words "would be his way of saying, 'Good night and good luck.' I can hear him now. And I hope you can."

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