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NEW TELEVISION SEASON: THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGING : With Independent Stations, Cable Services Producing More Shows and Affiliates Bypassing Networks With New Technology, TV Today Is a Marketplace of Options : SATELLITES HELP GATHER LOCAL NEWS

September 08, 1986|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

As the new TV season begins this month, so do the renewed ratings battles of CBS, NBC and ABC newscasts. But this may be what one ABC executive calls "a landmark season" for the nightly news programs of networks and their local affiliates alike.

The reason: Affiliates now have in place SNG, or satellite news-gathering operations that their networks have created--and partly financed--in response to pressure from affiliates. The idea is to give local stations the ability to cross city and state boundaries for stories.

News-via-satellite from local reporters sent to other states, other regions and even other countries has been gradually increasing over the last few years. But now, with the network-aided news cooperatives able to link local stations from coast to coast, some students of TV news say that those and other satellite ventures, including Cable News Network, portend the demise of the nightly network TV newscasts that have been with us since 1948 and CBS' "Douglas Edwards and the News."

As you'd expect, network news executives emphatically say no.

Some change is inevitable, they acknowledge, but say their newscasts will survive because networks still have the greatest resources--human and technical--to cover major national and international stories on a daily basis and provide the greatest in-depth reporting and perspective.

There are those who disagree, of course.

"That's a lot of baloney," snorts Stanley S. Hubbard, owner of ABC affiliate KSTP-TV in St. Paul, Minn., and outspoken founder of Minneapolis-based Conus Communications, a 2-year-old satellite consortium of 45 network-affiliated and independent stations.

His observation has nothing to do with the depth of reportage or perspective accorded major stories. He contends, among other things, that networks can't react fast enough on major breaking stories, that they can't offer a daily 24-hours-a-day news service.

"I'm not going to tell you they've had it, because they haven't had it," he says. Still, he adds, "if things go on as they are now, I would guess that in less than 10 years" network newscasts may be on the way out, with local stations replacing them with their own programs of local, regional, national and international news.

But he is in the minority, judging from interviews with various industry observers and local broadcast news executives who, like Hubbard, gathered last month in Salt Lake City for the annual convention of the Radio-Television News Directors Assn.

John Spain, of ABC affiliate WBRZ in Baton Rouge, La., and a former association president, says he has heard on "quite a number of occasions" that nightly network newscasts are in their waning days. But "I don't believe that's going to happen," he says.

"I do see a change," he notes, referring both to news formats and to the fact that network newscasts even now are leaving their New York studios more frequently, their anchors and staffs jetting to a major story and airing their programs via satellite.

In the future, he says, networks "may give us ways of splitting up half hours--15 minutes for them, 15 minutes for us," or may offer news with--or without--an anchor.

With satellites, though, "there's no question that local broadcasters are going to use that same technology to cover the news in Washington, or on a major story in the United States and perhaps bypass those historical network feeds," he says.

However, he adds, "I personally think the network news operations are very much alive and well. They still deliver one heck of a good product."

That product, superior journalism, is what networks "have got to exploit" for their newscasts to remain in business, says retired CBS News executive Burton Benjamin. He cites as an example a recent look by CBS' Bruce Morton at potential 1988 presidential candidates.

That kind of story "takes more than having a cameraman and a satellite dish to bounce it from. That requires a journalist," says Burton, an executive producer of the "CBS Evening News" in the era of Walter Cronkite.

"It requires a guy who can write, a guy who knows how to put tape together, a guy who is sophisticated about politics. That's where their (networks') strength is--in the quality of their reporting."

But satellite technology of local and network news operations, the ability to beam live and taped stories back from distant locales, "is going to be a draw" as its cost comes down, he notes. "You once paid $75 for a pocket calculator. Now you pay six bucks. That's what's happening with all this equipment, the dishes and the trucks."

He referred to the costly array of satellite gear at the news directors' convention, where a record 165 exhibitors displayed their various wares (including a computer system with the memorable name of "BIAS NewsRoom"). That high-tech companies are eagerly responding to satellite-minded local news directors was indicated by the number of exhibits promoting portable "fly-away" satellite dishes, satellite trucks and the sale of satellite transponder time.

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