With Barbara Walters sitting about 20 feet in front of him, Roone Arledge, the newly-appointed president of ABC News, told the network's annual affiliate meeting yesterday is "outdated and outmoded."
Arledge, who enjoys wide popularity with ABC's affiliates because of his success as president of ABC Sports (a position he still retains), brought up the subject of individuals anchoring news programs in the context of television news departments making better use of the technology, available to them.
"One of the things that I think we have a great opportunity to do," said Arledge, "is to extend the usuage of the technology of this industry the way it currently exists. We have reached the level of technology where we can, utilizing minicameras and satellites and all the various things that have been developed over the years, literally be on top of a story any place in the world.
"I think the old concept of the anchor position is outdated and outmoded and it can be changed. This doesn't mean we are going to eliminate anchor people and it doesn't mean that people are going to tune away from Walter Cronkite right away, because he's the best there is. There's no question about that. And we would be crazy if we didn't admit that.
"But," Arledge continued, "we can offer an alternative and I think we will. I think we will offer more coverage and better coverage and more lively and more interesting coverage. And I don't think you have to equate, as the press seems eager to do, entertainment with making something interesting. The mere fact that you make it more interesting does not mean you are trying to add show biz techniques or anything else that we are undoubtedly going to be accused of."
There was nothing new in what Arledge had to say about the role of anchorpeople in the news or the difference between making the news more interesting and entertaining. He said virtually all of it when his appointment as president of ABC News was announced last week.
But he has not said it in public before, and this was the first time that the ABC affiliates had some idea of the first time that the ABC affiliates had some idea of the direction he may take ABC News in the future.
Walters, a personal friend of Arledge who sought his advice during the first few months after she joined Harry Reasoner on the ABC future of anchor people in her speech to the affiliates.
She explained why Reasoner was absent - he had gone to London to cover Jimmy Carter and was now on his way to Israel on assignment - and told of her own plans to fly to Cuba in a week's time to interview Fidel Castro.
The affiliates gave Walters a nice round of applause - the giggest was reserved for William Sheehan who is stepping down from his post as ABC News president to become Arledge's top aide - and they laughed when Walters, referring to her mother who was sitting in the audience, said, "She must be thinking, 'Why doesn't she marry a nice boy and live in Great Neck.'"
The fact that a major part of the first day's morning session was devoted to a discussion of ABC's news division illustrated, as did Arledge's appointment last week, how seriously the network and its affiliates regard ta situation which sees ABC News continously running behind CBS and NBC.
A study commissioned by ABC management two years showed that white those interviewed found ABC to be improved in all other areas in the past two years, there had been no change in the attitude about ABC's role in public affairs. They still ranked in 1977 as they had in 1975: number three in that area.
This weakness, despite ABC's success in sports and entertainment programming, has thwarted to some degree efforts by the network to woo affiliate stations away from CBS and NBC. While ABC has in recent months gained new affiliates in San Diego (NBC), Baton Rouge (NBC), and Providence (CBS), other stations contemplating a similar move have been reluctant to cross over because of ABC's traditional third-place standings in news, as measured in both the ratings and in public esteem.
Arledge made no promises about how long it would take him to try and remedy the situation. He said that at a recent dinner in New York CBS's Morley Safer had told him he job would take seven years. NBC's John Chancellor told him it would take five years. Then he added Elton Rule (president, American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.) had told him when he was trying to decide whether to take the job, "We don't look for anything quick, it might seven take a year."
Arledge did say, however, that one of his first moves will be to start some form of magazine show - he said he hated the use of the word magazine as applied to television but couldn't think of a better one - in the near future during late evening hours. The show, he said, would be weekly, either 60 or 90 minutes in length and will give exposure to new personalities and to personalities already well known.