ABC took what it ballyhooed in advance as "the next step in television news" last night, and that next step turned out to be a doozie. It was not a giant one - either forward or backward - but it was certainly taken with all indeliberate speed.
The cumulative effect from watching the network's revamped evening news show, now called "World News Tonight," was something like having toured the global village in half an hour on an nuclear-powered merry-go-round. By the time you got of, you weren't quite sure where you got on, or what you had seen along the way.
ABC News and Sports President Roone Arledge and Av Westin, executive producer of the program, had decided that they would liberate the evening news show from the anchor person concept and replace the anchor with three on-camera "news desks," any one of which might lead off or dominate a particular evening's news-cast.
On the premiere of the new format last night, perhaps in an effort to flex electronic muscles and demonstrate the ability to globe-hop, the producers constantly shuttled viewers back and forth from Frank Reynolds at the Washington Desk to Peter Jennings at the Foreign Desk in London in Max Robinson at the National Desk in Chicago.
Within the first 10 minutes there were at least seven shifts of location. Early in the newscast, Reynolds threw the ball to Jennings in London just so that Jennings could briefly introduce a report from Moscow. Then it was back to Washington, over to Jerusalem, back to London, back to Washington and time for a commercial.
It should perhaps have been a commercial for Dramamine, but it wasn't.
"World News Tonight" premiered one year after Arledge took over ABC News. Recently he said the revamped show, with Harry Reasoner jettisoned and Barbara Walters removed from an anchor role, would be "nothing spectacular or dramatically new, but something solid and serious that we can build on." At the moment, it is ways, but it does appear more journalistically industrious than commercially gimmicky.
On the premier, Walters, who is accorded a kind of "guest star" status, appeared only briefly, interviewing a Harvard law professor about the current trial of Soviet dissidents. "Professor, is this trial a farce?" she asked. "This trial is a farce," said the professor.
The three news desk proprietors sit in what appear to be working newsrooms; a sputtering teletype machine provides a rhythm of urgency on the soundtrack. But what makes all this bouncing about slightly futile is the three cities with names painted on the respective ceilings, all three newsrooms look very much alike. To most viewers they must in fact look exactly alike. The value of the constant switching thus becomes dubious.
It adds to confusion, for instance, and not clarification, that we come out of a commercial break, to find ourselves in Chicago with Max Robinson only to find Max reporting on an incident at the World Trade Center in New York.
From Washington, Reynolds introduced a report from Houston on new astronauts; it would seem that Robinson could have handled that task just as well, especially considering he had only minutes earlier introduced a report on grasshoppers in Colorado.
In theory, it would seem that dropping anchors would be a way of streamlining the news. In practice, at least on the new program's maiden voyage, the gambit had just the opposite effect; it became a game of follow the bouncing news.
Certain cosmetic changes have been made which increase the program's efficiency at delivering information. The old "quad" four-way split-screen is gone, and the screen seems less cluttered with the superimposed names of reporters and correspondents. Prior to commercials, the legend on the screen might be "Coming Up - Congress Returns," but the reporter's name is no longer used as bait to keep viewers from turning out.
The use of an anchor person in a newscast is by no means sacrosanct, and one can, indeed, see disquieting aspects to the fact that Walter Grandpa Walton of television news, earns the highest network news ratings night after night partly because he is a comforting presence for viewers, a beacon and continuum of paternalistic reassurance.
On the other hand, there is an [WORD ILLEGIBLE] intrinsic ritual nature to news in print as well as broadcasting. Readers of newspapers have a right to expect certain things in certain places. An anchor person helps hold a newscast together and give it a sense of organization. It is possible that the ABC evening news show will drift back to the anchor idea eventually, merely as a matter of viewer convenience; that won't necessarily mean dropping the Chicago and London newsrooms, either.
For now, the effect is jarring and perhaps overly impersonal, but ABC is clearly trying to offer an alternative to the news styles of the other two networks and, in time, it should be able to deliver its kind of news cast with more coherence and less abruptness than on the premiere.
The first program, however, may have induced more than a few cases of whiplash in viewers not accustomed to "hopscotching the world for headlines quite so literally.