In the race to turn a coronation into a cliffhanger, NBC News won the oneupsmanship trophy yesterday by announcing a series of "exclusive interviews" with independent presidential candidate John Anderson to be aired on the "Today Show" the week of the Republican National Convention.
Anderson will "react to events and developments at the GOP convention" twice each morning on the "Today Show" from July 14 through July 18, NBC said. Although he'll be touring Europe at the time, the Anderson tapes will be beamed back to the U.S. by satellite for airing during the program, to originate from Detroit convention week.
Reaction to the plan yesterday ranged from incredulity and bemusement at the other networks to displeasure from the Regan camp. At the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), it was suggested that the interviews may not fall under exemptions to the equal time provisions of he Communications Act (Section 315) and that other announced independent candidates may file complaints demanding they be put on the "Today Show," too.
Other networks are seasoning their plans for coverage with gimmicks of their own. CBS News has announced a special edition of "60 Minutes" for Monday, July 14, with Mike Wallace exclusively interviewing Ronald and Nancy Reagan. ABC has hastily added to its roster of commentators four big names from the Eastern press establishment.
But NBC News takes the cake with the Anderson arrangement. "If NBC is indeed doing it, it seems rather strange to me, to hire a campaigning politician for commentary," said Jeff Gralnick, the ABC News vice president in charge of that network's convention coverage. Gralnick says ABC will cover Anderson's European excursion "as a news story" but would not hire him to do commentary.
NBC says Anderson hasn't really been "hired" and will not be paid for his contributions; he will be "interviewed" by NBC News correspondent Bob Jamieson, who'll follow him to Bonn, Paris and London for the sessions. Essentially, however, Anderson will be a partisan commentator looking at the convention from a self-serving perspective. He'll be the party guest who disinvited himself and then got a national platform to critique the affair. w
At Anderson headquarters, the mood was on the jubilant side. Anderson campaign manager Michael F MacLeod said Anderson's people jumped at the offer from NBC. "Why would anybody turn down free television time?" he said. "For a politician, that'd be like beating your mother in public, or saying you didn't really like apple pie." Another Anderson spokesman said the appearances promised "good exporsure" for the candidate.
"If I were Anderson's campaign manager, I'd be delighted, too," cracked a news executive at another network.
At Reagan campaign headquarters here media adviser Lyn Nofziger said of the agreement, "Well, that's one way of making a contribution to John Anderson's campaign -- by giving him free air time, free access to the public." Nofziger said he did not know whether Reagan would lodge a formal complaint with NBC.
"All this 'free air time' is an interview each morning," said NBC News president William J. Small in response "a lot of people will be interviewing John Anderson during the convetion. This is perfectly proper. He's an important political force."
Gordon Manning, the NBC News vice president in charge of convention coverage, defended the arrangement as good journalism. "Why, we've had politicians galore as guest commentators," Manning said.
It was NBC that signed what Manning calls "memoir deals" with former president Gerald Ford and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, both deals widely criticized in their time. The Ford agreement was dissolved prematurely and the Kissinger one produced such debacles as last year's David Frost interview, with Kissinger angrily stomping out of the studio and making demands about future interview sessions.
Manning said those deals are not comparable to the Anderson maneuver because Anderson has not in fact been "hired" by NBC News.
"I think we'd be going to him for his comments anyway," said Manning. "He has news value in himself -- I think. Don't you? With his standing in the polls, he's a genuine object of news curiosity at this time."
Manning conceded that a major problem facing the networks this year is how to make their convention coverage attractive to audiences for whom the outcome, especially in the case of the Republicans, is a foregone concluison.
"It goes without saying that the excess of primaries and caucuses has made conventions almost obsolete," said Manning. "Neither convention looms as an exciting competitive battle."
But he denied that using Anderson was a ploy to "jazz up" NBC"s coverage.
At the FCC, NBC"s "Today Show" was in fact ruled a "bona fide news program," and therefore exempt from equal time provision during an election year, in 1960. But that case, a spokesman said, involved only a single appearance by a newsmaker. "Because this case is different, it's in part an undecided question," the spokesman said. "The commission hasn't addressed itself to the specific aspect of someone appearing over and over again."
But Small said, "There's nothing in 315 that talks about the number of appearances." Ethically, he said, "I have no problem" with the Anderson arrangement. "I have more of a problem with things that lock out important third-party forces from coverage."
CBS News vice president Robert Chandler, a veteran of convention coverage, laughed when he heard of NBC's aggreement with Anderson and said, "I suspect it's something we wouldn't want to do." He also agreed that convention coverage presents a particular challenge to the networks this year and that the whole idea of gavel-to-gavel coverage will be re-thought between now and 1984. "Conventions are simply not what they used to be. They're a different animal now," Chandler said.
If conventions are obsolete and different animals, the networks do not appear to have radically revised their approaches to them, except for the piling on of guest stars. At ABC Nes, four outside commentators -- Haynes Johnson, George F. Will, Elizabeth Drew and Marty Nolan -- will supplement the work of ABC News personnel.
Asked it ABC News personnel didn't resent this as an intrusion, Gralnick said, "I would doubt it," but insiders there say it is greatly and deeply resented, and that it is viewed, like NBC's Anderson gambit, as a gimmick designed not to improve coverage but to titillate viewers.
"It is not our function to 'liven up' political conventions," said one veteran network newsman. "Our function is to make them interesting. In spite of all that's printed about them being packaged TV productions, they all are interesting. Each has a life of its own. We shouldn't assume they're going to be boring and then run around looking for gimmicks to sex them up."
Perhaps the network TV news bosss would not agree.