At first glance, Viacom Inc.'s merger with CBS Corp. could provide the network's struggling news division with a much-needed jolt of entertainment energy.
"It's good for CBS News, which is already part of a strong media company, to be part of an even stronger media company," the news division's president, Andrew Heyward, said yesterday. "This will help us internationally and give us the opportunity to expand into new areas."
While no one expects the "CBS Evening News" to adopt a rock-music theme of the sort favored by Viacom's MTV, the company's strength in cable, which also includes such outlets as Nickelodeon and VH1, could be a boon to a network with no cable news presence.
But critics were quick to question whether Viacom cares about news, which traditionally has not been a major moneymaker.
"When [Viacom Chairman] Sumner Redstone and [CBS President] Mel Karmazin sat down to discuss this deal, do you think a major point of discussion was 'How do we improve the quality of CBS News?' " asked Ken Auletta of the New Yorker, who frequently writes about media companies. "These are not men who consume the product they produce. They are businessmen, business engineers."
Marvin Kalb, a former CBS newsman who is now executive director of Harvard University's Shorenstein media center, had a mixed reaction. "My first instinct on this is that it saves CBS News," Kalb said. But "news shouldn't have to make money," he said. "If CBS is now put in the position where there are increased pressures to provide higher profits, then CBS News is lost, even if it has been saved."
CBS News has survived several rounds of cost cutting under previous owners, particularly Laurence A. Tisch in the 1980s, and the network's sale to Westinghouse Corp. in 1995. CBS's morning news, evening news and Sunday talk show are all in third place, but executives are pleased with the successful debut of "60 Minutes II" and plan to launch the renamed "Early Show" with Bryant Gumbel as anchor.
Several CBS News staffers admitted they are uncertain of what Viacom's ultimate impact will be. But Heyward took solace in the fact that, under the deal, Karmazin and CBS President Leslie Moonves will remain in place and oversee the news division.
"CBS News is in much better shape than it was two years ago," Heyward said. "While I'd like to take my share of credit for that, you certainly have to look to top management. They've been nothing but respectful of the independence of CBS News. There's been absolutely no editorial interference at all."
In the ranks of media-entertainment conglomerates that control American networks and their news operations, Viacom now joins Walt Disney Co., which bought ABC, and Time Warner Inc., which swallowed CNN. Heyward said he would be mindful of the potential conflicts of interest involved in covering other parts of the newly formed empire.
Just as Time has been criticized for cover stories on Warner Bros. movies and ABC's "Good Morning America" for an upbeat visit to Walt Disney World, CBS could take heat for profiling a star from Viacom's Paramount Pictures. Heyward noted that CBS has done specials on a Simon & Schuster book about Time's top 100 people of the century--and that the publisher is owned by Viacom.
"I don't expect any pressure," he said. "I don't expect to get a call saying, 'Make sure Adam Sandler is on the "Early Show" tomorrow.' . . . If there's a big story involving a Simon & Schuster book, we're going to do it, but we're not going to do it because it's a Simon & Schuster book."
Viacom will have a prime opportunity to use Nickelodeon to develop news for children on CBS, or vice versa. But the company may also run into clashing cultures in trying to exploit such opportunities for synergy.
"This is complicated for them because the CBS News audience is older than the other networks', and much older than MTV's audience," Auletta said. A typical MTV viewer, he said, might ask, "Who's Dan Rather? Who are these old fogies?"
One CBS veteran expressed no concern over the merger. "It's not going to make the slightest bit of difference to us," said "60 Minutes" correspondent Mike Wallace. "We are a franchise, to a certain degree the franchise. They've got more important things to do, I'm sure, than fiddle with '60 Minutes.' "