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USA Today Priming the Pump for Its New TV Program

April 07, 1988|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Steve Friedman returns to Los Angeles today, where 19 years ago he was a news writer at KNBC Channel 4, writing for anchor Tom Snyder.

He worked then on what he now calls "linear" newscasts, in which stories appear in the order of their importance.

"That's not what we're going to do," he said here on the second of six press conferences he's holding this week--including one in Los Angeles today--to tout the syndicated news show that he'll be introducing this fall, "USA Today: The Television Show."

"Our mandate is be compelling, to be interesting, to tell you things you don't know," he said Tuesday at Rockefeller Center, where until last summer he worked as executive producer of NBC's "Today" show.

After the press session, he moved to a nearby room to explain his new show to a group of publicists who may want their clients to be on the half-hour, weeknight program.

Courting a flock of flacks might seem unusual for a news executive. But earlier, when fielding reporters' questions about his show's possible impact on network news, Friedman cited the name of a legendary broadcast journalist in announcing a break from the hallowed past:

"Quite frankly, one of the reasons we're going to be successful . . . is that we have no baggage from the past. We don't have to worry about what Ed Murrow says."

Thus did the brisk, brash executive credited with moving "Today" from third to first in the morning-show ratings beat the publicity tom-toms for his new venture, which is scheduled to premiere Sept. 12.

(It isn't the only new TV news program by a newspaper, though. The Christian Science Monitor was due to announce here today its new "Monitor Newsworld," anchored by former NBC and CBS correspondent John Hart.)

Friedman's show is produced by GTG Entertainment, a joint venture of former NBC Chairman Grant Tinker and Gannett Co. Inc., owner of USA Today. Friedman called the program a video "cousin" of the colorful, upbeat, graphics-filled national newspaper that some have called freeze-dried television.

The new show has four anchors, all of whom are accompanying Friedman on his publicity safari this week. They preside over four video sections called Front Page (news), Money (business), Sports and Lifestyle (including entertainment and health reports). The respective anchors, all former network newsies, are Edie Magnus, Kenneth Walker, Bill Macatee and Robin Young.

The show, with an estimated first-year budget of $40 million, will be fed by satellite at 4:30 p.m. EST from its headquarters in Arlington, Va. It has been sold to 118 stations, including KCBS-TV Channel 2 in Los Angeles and WCBS-TV here, and is intended for airing in the hour before prime time (7 to 8 p.m. on the West Coast).

In addition to its Arlington base, it will have bureaus in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington and New York, and sometimes will use staffers from USA Today "to gives us background" on various stories, Friedman said.

He vowed that his show won't offer just more rehashes of stories that people have heard or seen all day on network and local newscasts.

"If we can't do it better or different, we're not going to do it," he said both here and in Arlington, Va., where his promotion campaign began earlier Tuesday. The show won't be locked into a rigid format, he said; sports could lead one night's show and money the next.

And, he said, the anchors won't do those "coming-up-next" chants about upcoming stories that one so often hears on TV news programs. (This is a marked departure from Friedman's "Today" years, where "coming up next" advisories came up very often, and still do.)

Some reporters raised questions of what might happen should the video "USA Today" succeed. Might that provoke network affiliates airing it to dump their network's old-fashioned, traditional evening newscast and go instead with their local newscasts and Friedman's show?

The producer ducked the question. "We are saying hooray for the networks, let them do their thing, they do it well," he said. "We don't want to compete with them. We don't want to fight with them. We don't want to do what they do.

"What we want to do is our own thing," he added. He said he considers his show one that complements and augments--not rivals--local and network newscasts.

His program, Friedman declared, "should not be viewed as threatening. This should be viewed with open arms in the journalistic community."

He showed reporters a 12-minute sample of what each section in the show might offer, including quick-flash graphics, which in one segment listed the states that produce the most football players.

(Such quick bursts of statistics neatly fit the forecast of futurist Alvin Toffler, who wrote in "The Third Wave" that the future would bring what he calls "the blip culture" in mass communications.)

The sample tape of the new show featured:

--A poll on whether "love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage." This included the query: "And what about passion? Does it fade after time?"

--A report on the happy homecoming of Washington Redskins quarterback Doug Williams to the small Louisiana town where he grew up.

--A report--lodged for some reason in the Money section--on John Barry, composer of the music for the new show.

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