On Television


OnTelevision ANCHORS AWAY BY MARVIN KITMAN N ^ o issue ln broadcasting today is more important than how long CBS will stay with Dan Rather Thebettingis that he won't last more than a year in...

...OnTelevision ANCHORS AWAY BY MARVIN KITMAN N ^ o issue ln broadcasting today is more important than how long CBS will stay with Dan Rather Thebettingis that he won't last more than a year in Walter Cronkite's anchor chair on the CBS Evening News I give him six more weeks U nless he shows up tonight wearing a burnoose The Afghan caper last year won him his best ratings Gunga Dan, they called him, Mister Intrepid Journalist, Daniel of Afghanistan, the $8 Million Dollar Man of showbiz news Those were his glory days Don't be fooled by the solid-looking Nielsens of his first few weeks behind the anchor desk The ratings were inflated by the rubber-necking crowd, the same people who flock to the scene of an accident on the highway They don't stop for very long Rumors about Rather being in trouble began flying the day after he signed the contract as Cronkite's replacement CBS was said to fear (hat viewers wouldn't warm to him as they did to Walter 1 know what thev mean Walter's retirement on March 6 was like losing a member of the tanuly He was my uncle Dan is like mv kid brother, the one who works so hard, makes twice as much money, is very smart, resourceful, articulate, handsome, neat, energetic, and gets all the girls You love him, but If 1 had to hear bad news, I always wanted Uncle Walter to break it to me The end of the world would not seem that troubling if Walter reported it I guess his news was better because it was safe People have enough surprises and shocks out there at work in real life, they want the familiar, old things on TV once they get home In any case, there's no denying that Walter, and to a lesser extent his copy-cattmg counterparts at the other networks, had a special impact, perhaps becoming even more important than what was being covered It often seemed an event was not really news until it was reported bv Cronkite You could tell someone about a piece of information that wasn't on TV and watch their disbelief when you said, "It's news " "What do vou mean,' they'd protest, "I didn't see it on Cronkite " Even a cur like me, w ho occasionally made fun ot Uncle Walt—Crankase, as I sometimes called him, yv as alter all the establishment—will truly miss him \i least he knew v\hat World War 11 was without peeking at a historv book He was in the Edward R Murrovv mold, the last good tradition in TV journalism Rather's big problem is that the view -ers won't accept him in his ow n right for a long time In their minds it continues to be "Dan Rather substituting for Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening \ews, Walter will be right back " He j ust went away for another one of those three month v acations Anybody would have trouble filling Walter's seat, no less his shoes But Rather's obstacles are compounded by his talent He is not an anchor He's a field reporter, one of the best w e will see on TV for a long time, what with the new generation of '70s hot-comb journalists rising to the top 1 used to love watching him keep after President Nixon, embarrassing the affiliates, until he got kicked upstairs to CBS Reports His crime was showing a bit of feeling about our former President Let's face it?Dan wasn't exactly Mister Tact I think Rather will eventually be warmer and looser on theair with Walter gone Whenever those two were together, the father-hotshot son relationship got really heavy "Walter, my sources say," Dan would begin some presumably exclusive report, onlv to have Walter abruptly add, "who are your sources, Dan7 Mine say " Young Dan would always become tighter and tougher during these skirmishes, a regular Mister Macho His stony face would become ev en stonier?absolutely Carborundum—after a session with Dad Left alone tor maybe three or tour years, Rather would undoubtedly be successful as an anchor Remember when Arnold Zenker, a Tv executive, was proceeding nicely sitting in tor Cronkite during oneot the strikes in the '60s7 But they have no patience in the business anymore Everything behind the scenes now has to happen as fast as what is oil TV useil Here's how 1 figure Rather s tenure on the Lietung Vu\ will end One night in the near future, while leading the news, Dan will suddenly disappear Bill Leonard the president ot CBS News, will have pushed the button opening a trap door beneath the anchor chair, dropping Dan into a speedboat waiting in the basement of the CBS News building near the Hudson River It will be announced that Dan has been dispatched on a "special reporting assignment" in El Salvador—the electronic age's equivalent of throwing the anchor overboard And that's the way it is for Dan Rather The amazing thing about Rather's debut was that everybody also knew who would replace him—Charlie Kur-alt I'd drink to that, but the Kuralt maneuver won't work Charlie was born with a biological defect that gives him a strange desire to keep moving Freud called this aberration Dodge Van-Derlust (it sounds worse in German) Once this dawns on the CBS executives, they will do what they should have done in the first place and name Bill Moyers the new anchorman Talk to me about this prediction six months from now In the meantime, Walter's replacement has extended some lives m broadcasting NBC will hang onto John Chancellor longer than it might have otherwise, on the assumption that viewers are now seeking out the older faces that they find more comfortable Another side effect of Walter's departure was the spate of full page ads the other network news departments took out, bidding farewell to their dear old friend who had been destroying them in the ratings for years—in case anybody hadn't heard the bad news that he was leaving yet It was so slimy it was funny The forgotten man in the past month's hoopla over Rather has been Roger Mudd, the designated heir apparent to Walter Cronkite for so long he was dubbed the graying heir apparent What an incredibly tacky way they told him that he wasn't it at a press conference, just when Rather was about to sign with ABC News CBS' name is not mud?it's worse Roger was devastated That interview with Teddy Kennedy was already enough of a psychological trauma There he was, interviewing a good old friend, and he knocked him right out of the box What a shock'Everybody said Roger blindsided Kennedy, but it was an easy question that a schoolchild could have answered "Why do you want to be President9" How could Roger have guessed that Teddy didn't know yet9 Who would have thought that the aspiring candidate's stammering reply would have finished off his Presidential campaign9 The switch to Rather finished off Mudd He took a nine-month leave from broadcasting, and then came back as the number two man on the NBC Nightly News But the steam has gone, the stuffing has been knocked out Chancellor has always been downbeat, too, yet I have grown to like him anyway He is intelligent, well-spoken, somebody you could look up to like a good college professor The new, depressed Roger is something else Mudd is in limbo, not an anchorman and not a reporter As the show's chief Washington correspondent he stands outside the White House or Congress looking like a maitre d', uninvolved in the workings behind the velvet rope My heart goes out to him He was great in the old Cronkite days when Congress was his beat But the same expertise doesn't come across as well for NBC News He no longer explains the mysteries of what goes on in the House of Cards or the Senate any better than his rivals Heck, I'd rather hear the captain at Sans Souci on the TV news than Roger N Jl, ^ BC is talking about Mudd as Chancellor's replacement Originally, he would have made the better anchor at CBS, as Rather must have realized For a little known fact is that he was ready to lunch with Mudd and offer him a co-anchorship Mudd was so sunk in gloom that he refused to attend What made him unacceptable as a replacement for Cronkite in the first place9 Some said Mudd's name was against him " 'Roger' is not a credible name for a solo anchor," they claimed, "it's a joke today, like 'Bruce '" His face didn't help either He doesn't look lovable In test audiences he comes across as an extreme "like" or "dislike,' with no middle ground So now we have the new, unimproved Roger I don't know about you, but I'm dejected enough at home without watching Roger report how rotten the world is in his poorly concealed state of depression Also forgotten in the anchor talk is Cronkite himself We haven't heard the last of Walter He is only 64 Reagan is 70—at least And Uncle Walter was not ready to retire They made him do it Bill Leonard needed Walter out of the chair so he could use it to keep Dan away from big bad Roone Arledge of ABC Walter's going away party really amounted to making him walk the plank Sure, Walter had been slipping a little lately During those long convention and election night map-readings he was starting to think Iowa was on Long Island He was pulling names from the Truman Administration for Reagan appointees Wise glances were being exchanged in the control room at CBS News in the final days of the Cronkite reign Hewasn'tlongforit,theconsen-sus was Picky, picky Cronkite could still knock the suspenders off Rather in the ratings, even if I am wrong about Dan's hold over his present audience In fact, I'd like to see that put to the test Walter would be comfortable as managing editor at NBC "The 7VSC Nightly News with Walter Cronkite " It sings' The whole CBS second team is already in place, from Dick Salant down to Bill Small among the news executives, from Secretary of State in residence Marvin Kalb to Bernard Kalb among the correspondents All NBC has to do is sign on the old star quarterback, the Y A TittleofTVjournahsm Go Freddie, go I wouldn't be surprised if he's already been giving Walter long rides on his yacht, the Proud Peacock It would be the crowning achievement of Silverman's lame-peacock administration at NBC, due to end next July when the new RCA chairman heaves him overboard It may be a little confusing for us TV news watchers to have Walter Cronkite on NBC But we're congenital confusees anyway...

Vol. 64 • April 1981 • No. 7

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