Outright hostilities between CBS News and the CBS Broadcast Group, which holds the purse strings, appear to have de-escalated to Cold War status, but CBS News insiders said yesterday that questions still were left unanswered by a Friday showdown with network management and that the truce which resulted remains a shaky one.
Some remain mystified that the network news division, considered first in professional renown and in ratings as well, is being put through a cost-cutting ordeal, while the news staffs at ABC and NBC spend as merrily as ever. One source said CBS News is seriously understaffed in Central America, but that no money exists to correct such problems.
A CBS spokesman confirmed yesterday that at Friday's meeting, Broadcast Group president Gene F. Jankowski backed down from his previous demands for a $12 million budget cut and 60-person reduction in staff for the prestigious network news division. He also pledged that CBS News would have enough funding to remain "competitive" with ABC and NBC.
The rift had reached its peak last week when both CBS News president Van Gordon Sauter and executive vice president Edward Joyce reportedly threatened to resign rather than preside over the dismemberment of CBS News, for years the industry leader.
Jankowski went to CBS News headquarters in New York for a meeting with Sauter, Joyce and 25 other senior CBS News staff members. Sauter could not be reached for comment yesterday, but Joyce said the session was "a candid, open, no-holds-barred meeting," praised Jankowski as "an extraordinary man" and said "everyone left that meeting reassured about the commitment of CBS to its news division."
The conflict became public recently when the Broadcast Group handed down its edict for another $12 million to be shaved from a news budget that already suffered a $7 million cut last spring. The previous cut and the new austerity binge subsequently were blamed for the network's embarrassingly abbreviated coverage of the pope's tour of Poland last week. Published reports put the gap between what CBS spent and what its competitors spent on coverage as high as $1 million.
Network news veterans also have privately expressed alarm in recent weeks over a decrease in the number of prime-time documentaries scheduled by the network and an increase, among those that were scheduled, in documentaries with "soft" centers and noncontroversial topics, such as planned reports on grizzly bears, the crash of an airliner and Andy Rooney's aerial trip over the United States. Jankowski reportedly joked about the grizzly bears at Friday's meeting and urged CBS News to resume "tough, hard" journalism again.
Gene Mater, CBS News spokesman, said yesterday that at the meeting, Jankowski pledged a return to 20 hours of prime-time public affairs programming per year, a total that will include five election-year specials in 1984. Twenty prime-time documentary hours had been the yearly average until the TV season that recently ended, when the number fell to 10. Sauter is said to prefer lighter-weight "magazine" format programs to traditional hour-length documentaries.
Mater said Sauter was told at Friday's meeting (a follow-up to a private meeting Jankowski had with Sauter and Joyce on Thursday) to save whatever money he could, but that the $12 million target was dropped, and that the "headcount" of 60 employes to be laid off also was lifted. Asked if there is still a hiring freeze at CBS News, Mater said, "Well, there's a freeze and there isn't a freeze." He said Sauter was free to replace people who left the news division.
CBS News for years has been the front-runner. The CBS News production "60 Minutes" is the number one television program in prime time, and hugely profitable for the network. "The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather" consistently scores first in weekly Nielsen ratings. "CBS News Sunday Morning" opened up new programming territory and has been lavishly praised. And under Sauter's leadership, "The CBS Morning News" has become competitive for the first time in network history.
But last year, the network's sales department made an error in its projected earnings that resulted in a shortfall of nearly $100 million to CBS Inc., and the network began putting pressure on all its divisions, including news, to slash operating expenses. The pressure, combined with such external conflicts as a $120 million libel suit filed against CBS News by Gen. William C. Westmoreland (and a slander suit against "60 Minutes" that CBS recently won in Los Angeles) contributed to what some insiders termed catastrophic morale problems within CBS News ranks.
Not all those problems vanished as a result of Friday's meeting, insiders say, but most said they were impressed by, among other things, the encouraging symbolism of Jankowski's trip across town (from CBS corporate headquarters on Sixth Avenue), an unprecedented visitation from a "Black Rock" potentate.
Speculation now is that CBS will look to its entertainment division for budget cutting. That could mean three fewer car crashes per week on "The Dukes of Hazzard," it was suggested to a CBS News source yesterday. He responded, "I'll drink to that."
Among those who attended the Friday meeting were "CBS Evening News" anchor Dan Rather and executive producer Howard Stringer; correspondent and senior analyst Bill Moyers; "60 Minutes" executive producer Don Hewitt, and Andrew Lack, executive producer of "Our Times with Bill Moyers," and of "CBS Reports." Charles Kuralt was invited to the meeting but could not attend, sources said. He was on the road.