Now Here's the News

Dan Rather returns to "CBS Evening News" tonight after an enforced absence of nearly two weeks . . .

Dan had returned from a two-week vacation on Aug. 19 when a virus hit him. By the 21st he was unable to talk above a whisper, and a series of substitutes, led by Bob Schieffer, took his place on the program . . .

"Between the vacation and the layoff, I think it's the longest time Dan's ever been off the air in his life," an "Evening News" cohort guessed yesterday . . .

And if that isn't enough to get you back to "Evening News" tonight, the CBS program will have exclusive photos of the just-discovered North Atlantic grave site of the liner Titanic . . .

Sources close to Phyllis George said yesterday that she went to CBS News management two weeks ago, as she prepared to leave on vacation, to signal her unhappiness regarding her status as a coanchor on "CBS Morning News" . . .

"Frankly," said one source, "she was tired of all the sniping in the press and behind her back on the show and the fact that nobody in management was standing up for her" . . .

On Friday, CBS announced that George had left the program effective immediately and would be replaced by Maria Shriver, the style and entertainment reporter who has been sitting in for George periodically this summer . . .

Forrest Sawyer, brought in from the CBS affiliate in Atlanta two short months ago to coanchor the "Early Morning News," was also named a permanent coanchor, replacing the departed Bill Kurtis . . .

At the time she met with CBS News management, George called Ed Hookstratten, her agent, and asked him how he felt about her leaving the program and perhaps asking for a reassignment to another division of the network . . .

Hookstratten said yesterday that reports circulating in New York that he in turn had asked CBS News to give her three prime-time specials as a "face-saving device" in the event she left "Morning News" "were not true" . . .

"I never asked them for anything," Hookstratten said . . .

Hookstratten said, however, that negotiations on the remainder of George's three-year contract will continue. She reportedly was to be paid $800,000 the first year, $1 million the second and $1.2 million the third . . .

Hookstratten did not preclude a possible return to "NFL Today," the Sunday CBS Sports staple where she worked for eight years before moving to "Morning News" in January . . .

He pointed out that "NFL Today" requires only three days a week in New York for only 18 weeks a year . . .

"Phyllis really missed her home (in Lexington, Ky.), her kids and her husband (former Kentucky governor John Y. Brown, who yesterday announced he plans to run again for that post)," said Hookstratten . . .

George's stay on the program since the middle of January was marked by a series of on-the-air gaffes that were quickly seized upon by the nation's press and early morning rivals at NBC and ABC (although it was never clear whether the general viewing public shared either their amusement or disdain, it must be pointed out, beyond the fact that the ratings for the show never really moved up) . . .

One report circulating in New York over the weekend had CBS News firing George in a Friday morning confrontation but Hookstratten denied that report, too . . .

Like any good agent, Hookstratten blamed the early morning program itself for much of George's problems . . .

"The show is disjointed," he claimed. "We've had good support from Van Sauter but he turned the show over to Ed Joyce and they want to keep it a show for the News division at a time of day when 'Good Morning America' and the 'Today' show prove that a mix of entertainment and news is what works . . .

"And now," said Hookstratten, "the 'Morning News' people are looking for scapegoats" . . .

Van Gordon Sauter is the CBS Broadcast Group executive vice president who is in charge of the News division, and whose idea it was to move George from Sports to the early morning News slot. Joyce is president of CBS News . . .

Hookstratten claims that producers of "Morning News" "tried to make Phyllis basically what she's not. She's a bright, outgoing person who gets along wonderfully with people and that comes through the TV set. The show is disjointed" . . .

Initially on Friday, the network made no announcement of George's departure and went public late in the afternoon only after word had hit the streets in New York . . .

At that time, CBS director of communications Ann Morfogen said the separation "was obviously mutual" . . .

"The job," Morfogen said Friday, "has obviously been a strain on her, with great demands on her life and the governor's life. I know Phyllis has been, over the past several months, wondering about things like 'I don't ever see my children' " . . . The Next Question

Is how will the rookie team of Shriver and Sawyer do in the dog-eat-dog early morning ratings competition, where for many years the only two well-nurtured pups have been at ABC and NBC . . .

After a drift, ABC's "Good Morning America" is back in first place these days, but NBC's "Today" is very competitive. "CBS Morning News" continues to lag . . .

Said one industry observer yesterday: "Sawyer is untried. Shriver is hard-working, smart and very popular with the people at CBS News. But whether they can compete, name-wise, with David Hartman and Bryant Gumbel remains to be seen" . . .

Said another, who probably was out of sorts because he was being called on Labor Day: "Sawyer and Shriver couldn't host a show in Los Angeles, for God's sake" . . .

The latest change in anchors at "Morning News" also revived the persistent rumor that CBS management will eventually (perhaps by the end of the year) hand the 7-to-9 a.m. time slot to the Entertainment division (ABC Entertainment runs "GMA," NBC News is in charge of "Today") . . .

That scenario gets pulled off the shelf every 18 months or so as "Morning News" remains in the doldrums but one ignores at one's peril the persistent power of the CBS News Heritage that gives the number one network that special e'lan that ABC and CBS can't match and is the News division's hole card whenever talk of dismemberment crops up . . . Meanwhile

As hinted here Friday, Channel 4 weekend anchor Mike Hambrick has signed on with WPXI, the NBC affiliate in Pittsburgh, to be a weeknight anchor . . .

His last telecast at WRC will be Sunday, Sept. 15, and he is expected to start at Pittsburgh shortly thereafter . . .

Hambrick and WRC were unable to come to terms in August over an extension of his previous three-year contract because the station couldn't promise him the weeknight anchor spot he wanted . . .

Hambrick was also reportedly talking to a Jacksonville, Fla., station when he signed with WPXI . . .

Hambrick has been coanchoring on weekends with Susan Kidd. A spokesman for WRC said yesterday that Kidd will probably be a solo anchor while a replacement is being sought . . .

ABC Entertainment, which hasn't had a whole lot to cheer about lately, is enjoying its Tuesday nights a good deal more lately . . .

For the past four weeks, with the help of strong on-air promotions for "Moonlighting" and "Who's the Boss?" reruns, ABC has taken Tuesday nights, previously an NBC stronghold . . .

And, in fact, "Moonlighting" has been kicking the daylighting out of NBC's "Riptide" the past month . . . And Finally

From the Poet's Corner:

We hear from the "trades,"

Where they gossip of raids,

That ABC's talking to Charlie.

That's Osgood, of course,

The bow-tied workhorse

Of CBS, vous parlez?