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The High Price of TV Newscasts' Survival


BALTIMORE — A trusted friend called late Monday night waxing cynical about the "CBS Evening News."

John Roberts, the CBS White House reporter filling in for Dan Rather as anchor that night, had "teased" a story later in the newscast about the unveiling of a statue of Jackie Gleason in front of the New York Port Authority. "Gotham honors a heavyweight," Roberts said.

The commercial that immediately followed showed an actor playing "Batman" to promote OnStar, a navigational service owned by General Motors. New York is occasionally called Gotham, it's true, but that nickname for the big city is best known from "Batman."

My friend--a solid guy who doesn't think there was a second shooter on the grassy knoll--wanted to know: Had CBS slipped in a pitch for a national advertiser?

The answer, according to CBS: While one of the news show's producers would know that GM had placed an ad, he or she would have been highly unlikely to know its content. Regardless, a network official said, no one at CBS News has any interest in pushing advertisers' products during the newscast. "That, to me, is a real stretch, in thinking that there's any collusion," says CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius. "That's absurd."

Take CBS at its word, as I do here. Such questions are only likely to proliferate, however, with the blurring of the line between news and entertainment on the national networks. Exhibit A: CBS.

News figures Bryant Gumbel, Jane Clayson and Julie Chen have been interviewing participants in the network's "Big Brother" and "Survivor" reality shows seemingly nonstop since the start of the summer. This has taken place on CBS' "The Early Show," produced by the news division, and in prime time, courtesy of the entertainment division, yielding greater arcana about people who are famous simply for having been on television.

In recent remarks, Steve Friedman, executive producer of "The Early Show," made it clear he would stoke "Survivor"-mania as much as possible, with frequent appearances by contestants from the tropical-island game show.

On the local level, reporters and anchors on WJZ-TV here have been enlisted to push "Survivor" just as hard. Kai Jackson gamely faked an Australian accent and brandished an Aussie hat to remind viewers of "Survivor II," to be filmed Down Under.

When the cross-promotional overload becomes too much, what's the average viewer to do? Why shouldn't CBS News' selection of stories, or even wording, become suspect, as it did in the eyes of my friend?

WJZ General Manager Jay Newman, an urbane former CBS corporate executive who now runs the network-owned station, argues that public interest in "Survivor" made it impossible to ignore. In describing the ideal elements of a newscast, he said the station considers: "What's important? What should people know? And also, what are people talking about?"

While he notes that his station did stories on the finale of NBC's "Seinfeld" and the success of ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," Newman concedes, "Any television station is probably going to do a little more on their programs than those of their competitors."

Back at CBS News headquarters, Genelius pleads for context. Why is it any different, she asks, from Katie Couric and Matt Lauer, of NBC News' "Today Show," acting as hosts of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade? (NBC's entertainment division has a financial stake and the rights to exclusive live coverage of the parade.)

Why ridicule, as we all have, "Early Show" news reader Chen for her bubbly performance as emcee of "Big Brother," when ABC News' Barbara Walters chatters about intimate relationships on the talk show "The View"?

Early on, the network decided to use "Survivor" to help CBS' third-place morning news show. "Our reality is not what it was 20 years ago," Genelius says of the pressures on news divisions to make money. "We're in a very, very competitive situation. We're fighting for survival. If we don't adapt in some ways--and don't read anything specifically into that--we can't survive."

The scary thing is not that Genelius is wrong, but that she may be right, as the morning-show model--a hybrid of hard news, celebrity-gazing, health trends and household tips--swallows television journalism whole.

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