It shouldn't even be called "The ABC Evening News," really. It should be called "Coming Up." At ABC they seem more interested in announcing what's "coming up" on the newscast that in that old nuisance called news.
For all the ballyhoo, tub-thumping and pirouettes through the gossip columns that have attended the ABC News operation - from the hiring of Barbara Walters at 1 million smackers per, to the takeover by sports czar Roone Arledge, to the return of Av Westin as producer of the "Evening News" show - ABC's nightly newscast has failed to advance dramatically in quality or in popularity with the public.
ABC News remains third-rated and third-rate.
Coming up at noon today, in the effete surroundings of New York's "21' Club: Citizen Roone, with still more announcements of personnel and format changes for the "Evening News." One doesn't have to be prince of cynics to expect at most new cosmetics for old gimmicks. When you watch "The ABC Evening News," you get the feeling you are only watching a promo for the news, not news itself.
Westin and Arledge think their big contribution to network news is the floating anchor, which eschews a centralized, linking anchorperson and instead builds story-to-story transitions into the field reports themselves. Part of the rationale behind this is to make time for more news, but whatever time has been saved has been put not to the use of information but to ABC's favorite sport, the old hypola.
The real Arledge touch is embodied in that oft-repeated phrase, "Coming Up," and it's the same touch he brought to "Wide World of Sports." The ideal is born of the mortal terror that Average Viewer might not like what appears on the screen but can be enticed to stick around for something he may like later. So that in the third lap of a six-lap swimming event one suddenly learns that George Willig is right around the corner waiting to climb a rock.
It's a sales pitch, and it apparently worked, because both NBC and CBS have copied it in their sports coverage. You can hardly watch a single shot being put on TV these days without simultaneously learning what kind of a pretzel some Russian gymnastic cutie will be turning herself into three minutes later. By assuming that our attention span grows shorter each week, television effectively shortens our attention spans each week.
The philosophy does not work so well on a newscast, however, no matter how much the Arledge team may try to make a news item look like a contest of wills, bodies or spirits. The evening newscast on ABC is now so saturated with plugs for the news that you can hardly see the news through them.
While de-emphasizing the anchor's role would seem to be a welcome blow to star system in TV news, it turns out that ABC compensates by trying to make all of its reporters stars - they're the Charlie's Angels of news. To make reporters stars, you just keep repeating their names, verbally, or with a printed identification on the screen. ABC will repeat a reporter's name as many as six times within a single newscast.
On the Monday edition of the "Evening News," there were, within about 24 minutes of actual news time, 43 separate mentions, printed or spoken, of reporter's names.
It starts with a four-way split-screen tease at the opening of the show. Reporter's voices list the "top stories" followed by their own names, like this: "I'm Dan Cordtz," "I'm Don Farmer', "I'm Barbara Walters," and "I'm Bill Redeker."
Harry Reasoner will say, "Here's Dan Cordtz," and then when you hear Dan's voice, his name is superimposed on the screen: "DAN CORDTZ." Then at the end of his report, Dan says, "Dan Cordtz, ABC News, Washington."
The scene shifts to the White House and the legend "SAM DONALDSON REPORTING" just as you hear a voice say, "This is Sam Donaldson." When Donaldson appears on camera moments later, he is again identified with type, "SAM DONALDSON, White House', and Sam signs off with, "Sam Donaldson, ABC News, the White House."
News figures are identified in the same way, but not as often. Prior to a commercial Monday night, the screen was given over to "COMING UP: BARRIE DUNSMORE," while the announcer said, "Coming up, Barrie Dunsmore and the dipolmatic race against time in Rhodesia."
"More now," Frank Reynolds said after the commercial, "from Barrie Dunsmore," and then, over a shot of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance getting off an airplane in Rhodesia, we saw the identifying legend, "BARRIE DUNSMORE, reporting."
Vance didn't get his name up in type until a few minutes later.
It's all one long dose of promo-seltzer. Barbara Walters proclaims before her interview with Panamanian Gen. Omar Torrijos that it is an "exclusive" for ABC News. Torrijos sits rigidly in his uniform during the interview. On the other networks, he is not interviewed, but we see candid snots of him in shirtsleeves on Panamanian streets. The interview was no great coup, but at ABC there's an apparent philosophy that if you say "exclusive," viewers will be impressed, even if it's exclusive because nobody else particularly wanted it.
When Walters was wooed to ABC, it looked like the star system had triumphed, but this was misleading because the star system already had triumphed years earlier with the Huntley-Brinkley team and the risk of Walter Cronkite as the avuncular oracle of America. Walters probably took more lumps than she deserved, and if it seems incongruous for her to jump from interviewing Menachem Begin to chit-chatting with Donny and Marie, it should be remembered that Edward R. Murrow did "Person to Person" as well as "See It Now."
In fact, if Walters is not the best thing about "The ABC Evening News" show, she is probably now the least objectionable element, and her style, unlike that of other women reporters on the air, is dynamic and assertive without seeming forced or mannered. Jessica Savitch of NBC, to name one, isn't even in the same league. Walters is the No. 1 women in TV news, though the field is still far from crowded.
But even she has the junky look and plastic wrap of the ABC news show itself to complete with; it totally lacks the dignity of CBS News, always the ratings winner, or the sleek and orderly professionalism of NBC. In addition, some ABC reporters act like they're working for The National Enquirer of the Air.
That was the impression left by Betina Gregory's recent report on Karen Ann Quinlan, a pandering tear-jerker first aired on Saturday's evening news show, then repeated on Monday's "Good Morning, America" and also made available to ABC affiliates.
In recent purplest of prose, Gregory recalled the court struggle to have the comatose girl's respirator disconnected, a case her parents first lost but later won. "The scales of justice tipped the other way on appeal," Gregory said, and this utterance was accompanied by a shot of the jiggling in the wind - the kind of cornball visual one normally sees only in a Monty Python spoof.
Gregory ended with mawkish mock-solemnity: "Karen Quinlan waits in the shady area between life and death, while her parents wait for God's will to bedone." The camera showed the parents walking off into the sunset.
ABC News has a long way to go, and such lapses make one wonder if they really want to get there. At the moment, all the revisions seem to center on improving the package and not the product. Everything's coming up "Coming Up," and comparatively little is coming up journalism.