NEW YORK — Walter Cronkite may be a major television figure in this country, but he found he didn't impress his European friends until he hosted the Vienna Philharmonic's New Year's Day broadcast.
The concert, to be carried on U.S. public television stations today, could be the most-watched television broadcast in the world next to the Olympics, Cronkite said in an interview at his office at CBS.
"It's possible because it's so widely broadcast," Cronkite said. "The Russians take it, the Chinese take it, the Japanese take it. It's all over the world."
("From Vienna: The New Year's Celebration 1987" airs today at 4 p.m. on Channel 28, at 7 p.m. on Channel 24, and at 8 p.m. on Channels 15 and 50).
Cronkite, who became synonymous with television news in almost 20 years with the "CBS Evening News," has been host of the Vienna broadcast since 1984, the first year it aired in this country.
"I'm not one of the world's great students of fine music, but I like it," he said. "And this is musical comedy music anyway . . . it's Strauss for the most part. It's light, a very joyful kind of opening for the new year."
He said when he first went to Vienna to do the broadcast, he called friends in Holland to say he might visit them. They had known him since he was a World War II correspondent and knew he "had something to do with television," Cronkite said.
"But not till they heard I was doing this concert did they really elevate me to the high posture that I'm accustomed to," he said with a laugh. "They said, 'You mean you're doing the Vienna Philharmonic?' Apparently in The Netherlands, people use it as a centerpiece of New Year's Day receptions."
Cronkite, 70, may not be a classical music expert, but he is very big on sailing and has been appearing in one-minute commercial spots promoting the America's Cup yacht race in Australia. The qualifying trials have been going on since October. The finals are in February.
There will be a three-minute spot in the Super Bowl Pre-Game Show, and Cronkite hopes CBS will carry a one-hour documentary on the race when it is over. But he was worried whether there would even be an American boat in the finals, with the elimination of America II leaving only two U.S. yachts to challenge the New Zealand favorite in the semifinals.
After the Vienna broadcast, Cronkite said he would visit a ski resort, though he hasn't skied in years, "just to see what it's all about," then visit a friend in Singapore, go on to Perth, Australia, to continue the series on the America's Cup and stop on the way back to work on one of his occasional "Walter Cronkite at Large" shows, to be broadcast later this year on CBS.
Cronkite called his current travel schedule "kind of typical of life today for me."
"I don't know how I manage to stay so busy when I'd rather be sailing," he said.
When he's not globe-trotting, Cronkite has been serving as something of a network anchor emeritus, sought after for his thoughts on the status of network news.
NBC's cancellation of its low-rated, prime-time newsmagazine "1986," he said, was not necessarily a blow to prime-time news shows if the network keeps its promise to replace the program with 15 hours for documentaries each season.
"We've been missing the hour documentary," Cronkite said. "Everything has gone to the magazine format, including my own program, this 'Walter Cronkite at Large' thing that we started in September, and that's unfortunate.
"I think there are a lot of good pieces that can be covered in 20 minutes that don't need an hour, but by the same token there are things that need an hour or more. I think shutting out the hour because of its comparatively poor ratings has been very unfortunate."
Cronkite said it was, however, "understandable" in view of the network ratings race, "but at some point, we've got to reassume the responsibility that is ours on the networks to help inform and educate the public.
"I think it'd be great if the evening news broadcast, for instance, were unsponsored and unrated," he said. "But that's like dreaming of nuclear disarmament next Friday afternoon. It ain't gonna happen."