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Fine-Tuning the Work of 'CBS Evening News' Team : Television: The newscast's executive producer, Andrew Heyward, is working on the mechanics of the anchor duo, with an eye toward a smoother show.

November 08, 1994|JANE HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — When Andrew Heyward took over recently as executive producer of the "CBS Evening News," the speculation at the network was that he was there to devise an exit strategy for the co-anchoring of Dan Rather and Connie Chung--perhaps sending them on a string of separate reporting trips that would make viewers forget they were ever a team.

But three weeks into the job, Heyward said that he is determined to make the pairing work.

"CBS is committed to Dan and Connie continuing as co-anchors," he said in an interview. "They will travel where it's appropriate, but I'm not here to separate the two."

Numerous TV critics have said that Rather and Chung, despite their efforts, have appeared uncomfortable side by side since they were teamed in June, 1993, and some have argued that there simply may not be enough for two anchors to do in a 22-minute newscast.

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More important, CBS had made the move to increase its ratings at a time when "NBC Nightly News" was gaining, but instead viewership fell and NBC moved into second behind ABC's "World News Tonight," which has been in first place for five years.

In recent weeks, however, the "CBS Evening News" has improved its competitive standing and is now running neck and neck with NBC. For the third quarter this year, ABC averaged a 9.1 rating while CBS and NBC each had a 7.9. So far this fall, ABC has averaged a 9.7 rating, followed by CBS with 8.4 and NBC with 8.3. (Each rating point represents 954,000 homes.)

"Everybody in the press said the co-anchoring was a mistake and we were doomed," said CBS News President Eric Ober. "But we're in second place this season."

(Not so fast, says NBC. "After a year and a half, having Rather and Chung as co-anchors has not moved CBS ahead dramatically, as they had expected," said NBC News spokeswoman Beth Comstock. "To declare victory at this point is misplaced.")

Heyward, 44, who did a previous stint producing the "CBS Evening News" in 1986 and '87, has experience with both Chung and Rather, having developed "48 Hours," the prime-time newsmagazine anchored by Rather, and serving as executive producer of Chung's "Eye to Eye" newsmagazine, which premiered two weeks after she started on the "Evening News" last year.

"In the past, (the pairing) was criticized as a cosmetics gimmick," Heyward said. "We have two experienced journalists and we need to do a program that taps into their skills and involves them more in the broadcast they report."

Heyward is making moves to improve the mechanics of co-anchoring in the studio--for example, having each anchor talk about related stories rather than awkwardly splitting the lead story between them.

He also is planning to better define the roles that Rather and Chung will play. "I expect that Dan will do the lion's share of the foreign reporting, although Connie is not going to be excluded from that," he said. He cited Rather's recent coup of landing interviews with Haitian general Raoul Cedras as an example of the newsman's tenacity in the field.

Heyward praised Chung's skills as an interviewer and indicated that she may be used to "report on some of the critical issues that come on to the agenda in this country, as health care did."

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But while Chung has been identified with celebrity interviews on "Eye to Eye," Heyward said, "We're not talking about bringing newsmagazine elements or celebrity interviews" to the CBS newscast. In fact, he said, he plans to continue a greater emphasis on hard news, a trend that was begun about a year ago by former producer Erik Sorenson.

"We need to emphasize enterprise, original reporting and analysis from reporters such as (national security correspondent) David Martin or (European correspondent) Tom Fenton," Heyward said.

Heyward was recently criticized by ABC News President Roone Arledge for airing what amounted to a brief promo for Chung's "Eye to Eye" interview with Faye Resnick, the author of a controversial book about the late Nicole Brown Simpson. Heyward defended his decision, saying, "That was a legitimate news story that was made an issue in court that day by Judge (Lance) Ito."

Despite its recent gains in the ratings, the "CBS Evening News" will face problems in the coming year as the network's strong affiliates in Atlanta and Detroit switch to Fox, and CBS moves to weaker-signal stations that have only begun to do local newscasts.

"We're in for a rough time in those markets," Heyward acknowledged. Viewers can expect to see Rather and Chung traveling to those cities soon to report the news and to help the new affiliates, CBS executives said.

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