NEW YORK — Acting on a White House invitation made shortly before NBC broadcast an interview with Mikhail S. Gorbachev, news anchors for ABC, CBS, NBC and Cable News Network are scheduled to interview President Reagan today. The question-and-answer session will air tonight.
Some network news staffers privately said that the White House move seemed a belated effort to counter the public-relations impact of the Soviet leader's one-hour interview with Tom Brokaw, which NBC aired in prime time Monday.
NBC News President Larry Grossman, in an interview Wednesday, declined to speculate on what may have prompted the White House invitation for today's unusual four-anchor powwow with the President in the Oval Office.
"I wouldn't want to characterize it," said Grossman, whose network, like its rivals, has had a long-standing request for a one-on-one interview with Reagan. "I think somebody else should, but it's not our job to do that."
On Nov. 23, he said, he called White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker to advise him, "as a courtesy," that NBC planned to disclose the next day that it had arranged an exclusive interview with Gorbachev.
At that time, he said, he reminded Baker of NBC's standing request for an hour-long interview of Reagan by anchorman Brokaw that would be aired in prime time. But there was no response until this Monday, he said.
Then, he said, Baker called "to say that there would be a conversation with the President as per our suggestion, but that it would not be what we (NBC) originally had anticipated."
Today's four-network interview is scheduled to last 30 minutes, with Brokaw representing NBC, Dan Rather CBS, Peter Jennings ABC and Bernard Shaw on hand for CNN.
Under an agreement with the White House, the networks and CNN may use five-minute excerpts of the interview for their regular newscasts tonight, but they can't broadcast the entire interview until the start of prime time at 8 p.m.
CBS, ABC and NBC said they planned to air the full Reagan interview at the top of their prime-time schedules at 8 p.m. (However, it could air as early as 5 p.m. in Los Angeles; local stations were undecided Wednesday afternoon about when they would show it.)
Following the 8 p.m. broadcast ends, CBS and NBC said they would air their full Thursday night lineups, with everything starting 30 minutes later than usual. That would mean the local news would be seen at 11:30 p.m. on KCBS-TV Channel 2 and KNBC Channel 4 (unless they decide to air it earlier).
ABC said it will move its 8 p.m. show, "Sledge Hammer!," to 8:30 p.m., preempting "The Charmings," then will resume its regular schedule at 9 p.m.
CNN, which on Oct. 10 broadcast in prime time an exclusive interview that Reagan had given to Shaw and Charles Beirbauer, hasn't decided if it also will run the latest interview in prime time tonight, a spokesman said.
That decision, he said, will depend on the newsworthiness of the interview as well as on the possibility of new developments in the hostage story at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, where CNN is based.
NBC's Monday night telecast of the one-hour Gorbachev interview had no commercials and, according to a knowledgeable industry source, cost the network about $1.5 million in advertising revenue. The news program replaced two NBC comedies, "Alf" and "Valerie's Family."
It also was a distant third in the ratings behind programs on CBS and ABC. Its attracted an estimated 14% of the viewers watching TV at the time, garnering a national rating of 9.9--or nearly 8.8 million homes.
But the Nielsen returns were neither surprising nor dismaying, Grossman said: "Obviously, we didn't do it for ratings. We know that a lot of the people tuning in for 'Alf' would not find this, er, compatible programming. But it was clearly important . . . and made a tremendous impact, and that's what we were interested in."
When the national Nielsen ratings for this week are released, Gorbachev likely will have made a a greater impact than the six Democratic and six GOP presidential candidates who debated each other on NBC Tuesday night.
According to overnight ratings from 15 major cities, the two-hour debate at the Kennedy Center in Washington averaged an 8.4 rating, compared to the 9.1 that the Soviet leader got in the 15-city tally after his NBC interview.
In Los Angeles, KNBC Channel 4's telecast of the Tuesday night debate averaged a rating of 7.9 and drew 13% of the audience--which meant that, as had been expected, it came in third to shows on KCBS-TV Channel 2 and KABC-TV Channel 7.
KCBS' "Jake and the Fatman" and "The Law and Harry McGraw" averaged a 10.2 rating and 18% of the audience in the two-hour time slot, while KABC won the period with "Moonlighting" and "thirtysomething," which averaged an 18.3 rating and a 30% audience share.
National ratings for Tuesday night weren't available at press time.
Meanwhile, NBC's Grossman, who used to be president of PBS, said that New York's public-TV station, WNET, had asked for and was given permission to air NBC's Gorbachev interview and to make it available to the rest of the PBS network. WNET plans to broadcast the program tonight, but a PBS spokesman said no decision had been made on when it would transmit the interview to other stations.