Even the No.1 network, NBC, has some difficult issues on its agenda--and NBC President Robert C. Wright was grilled Monday about matters ranging from labor relations to international relations.
Although Wright, a former executive of NBC's parent company, General Electric, began his remarks to a gathering of TV critics and editors expressing confidence in the network's progress during its first year under his leadership ("The leadership of NBC is firmly in control of its own destiny," he said), the discussion soon moved to the more serious problems facing NBC.
Among them: the current strike against NBC by the National Assn. of Broadcast Employees and Technicians; a failure by NBC last week to report a major story about General Electric, and an international tiff with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir over last month's NBC program "Israel 20 Years After--A Dying Dream."
On the strike issue, Wright acknowledged that business has been hampered by the walkout of NABET employees, some of whom picketed last weekend outside the Century Plaza, where NBC's meetings with the critics and editors from newspapers around the country took place--but charged that their current "unrealistic" contract demands would not soon be accepted by NBC.
"We have 4,700 people inside NBC who are just as dedicated . . . as the 2,700 people on the outside (on strike)," Wright said. "We are more concerned about the whole (network) than one special-interest group."
On the matter of NBC's relationship with General Electric, Wright was questioned about the failure of the "NBC Nightly News" to report, as its competitors did, the sale of General Electric's $3-billion-a-year consumer electronics business. He denied that he or General Electric might have undue influence over the objectivity of NBC news coverage.
If anything, he said, NBC's gaffe on the story (which NBC News President Lawrence Grossman called "embarrassing") is a clear indication that General Electric has no direct control over the news department.
"They (the news department) wouldn't expect a directive from me--and any other directive other than to be fair, be thorough and fast, would be inappropriate," he added.
Wright also downplayed the significance of Israel's anger over "Dying Dream," a documentary exploring conditions in Israel on the 20th anniversary of the six-day war, which lead to Shamir and two other senior Israeli officials saying they will refuse interviews with NBC.
Although acknowledging that his failure to respond to a letter of complaint from the embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C., for 16 days was "in hindsight, probably unfortunate," Wright added that "we get a lot of such letters" about controversial programming, and he expressed confidence that a decision to send an NBC News representative to discuss the issue with Shamir would smooth the waters.
In an earlier conference during NBC's four-day tour, NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff said NBC's fall season plans would not be affected by the NABET strike, and made the following programming announcements:
--"The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd," a series that has been airing since late May, has been picked up for 13 additional episodes.
--Gary David Goldberg, executive producer of "Family Ties," is at work on a back-up series for NBC called "Day by Day," which Tartikoff called "a sort of a reverse of 'Family Ties,' " about a couple approaching 40 who decide to refocus their lives on the family, rather than money and career.
--Comedian Jay Leno's previously announced first prime-time special, "A Comedy Salute to the Family," is scheduled for Nov. 25.
Tartikoff said he had been displeased that some NBC-owned stations, including KNBC-TV Channel 4 locally, have been running promotional spots on the air saying that NBC's prime-time programming will begin at 7:30 p.m. this fall. The reality is that NBC's programming will continue to start each night at 8, while the NBC stations will introduce first-run syndicated comedies at 7:30.
Tartikoff said he had received assurances that the stations will make it clear in future ads that the 7:30 p.m. programming originates at the station, rather than the network.
In discussing competition from the many alternatives to network TV, including cable and videocassettes, Tartikoff blasted the other networks for not keeping themselves competitive enough during the summer, which he believes weakens network viewing as a whole. Poor summer fare, he said, is "an open invitation to take a hike over to HBO or Showtime."