Now Here's the News

The increasingly bizarre situation at CBS News took a strange turn last week when "60 Minutes" executive producer Don Hewitt, over lunch with CBS Broadcast Group president Gene F. Jankowski, asked him to consider selling the News division to Hewitt and some of his colleagues . . .

The offer was apparently prompted by reports that financially pressed CBS Inc. is considering selling off some of its assets, in the wake of the costly hostile takeover attempt by Ted Turner (which also may have left the company open to other outside offers); and by the fear that ongoing campaigns by ideologues charging CBS News has a liberal tilt might force any new owner to make changes in the News division . . .

These pressures, in turn, have reportedly exacerbated a growing, if little-publicized, split within the CBS News division between the Old Guard, of which Hewitt is a charter member, and younger management . . .

The latter is regarded as too dedicated to the bottom line, in response to CBS Inc. budget cut demands, and not as respectful as it should be of CBS News traditions ("West 57th," this summer's entertainment-oriented magazine experiment, is often cited as an example) . . .

An aide to Jankowski said yesterday that the Hewitt offer "spilled a little soup" at the lunch but that the Broadcast Group president assured Hewitt that "CBS News is not for sale and never will be -- it's a part of the CBS tradition" . . .

However, one version of the lunch, reported yesterday in New York editions of Newsday, said that Hewitt also called for the ousters of CBS Broadcast group executive vice president Van Gordon Sauter, who oversees CBS News, and CBS News president Ed Joyce . . .

Yesterday, Hewitt fired off a letter to Newsday publisher David Laventhol denying the latter report:

"Dear David," Hewitt wrote. "An item in (the Oct. 21) Newsday said 'Jankowski reportedly asked Hewitt, since he knew full well the News division wasn't up for grabs, what it was Hewitt and his colleagues really wanted. Hewitt's response: the scalps of Sauter and Joyce.'

"Not only," Hewitt's letter continued, "did I not say anything even remotely resembling what Newsday said I said, but Gene Jankowski never asked me the question Newsday said he asked.

"The truth is that I asked CBS management if it would entertain the thought of sitting down with me and some of my colleagues to discuss our buying CBS News if it should ever be for sale or if there was a chance that control of CBS might pass to some outsider who might not have the same feeling about CBS News that has always been a hallmark of this network."

A spokesman for Jankowski yesterday confirmed the Hewitt version of the lunch contained in the letter to Laventhol . . .

Hewitt was refusing phone calls yesterday as were other key CBS News executives, leaving to speculation who might be the "colleagues" interested in joining Hewitt in such a venture . . .

In Daily Variety, Kevin Goldman speculated that "Evening News" anchor Dan Rather, correspondent/commentator Bill Moyers and "60 Minutes" correspondents Diane Sawyer, Mike Wallace and Morley Safer were among the group . . .

Rather was also not answering phone calls yesterday . . .

Goldman said one version of the Hewitt plan circulating at CBS had them purchasing the division and selling it back to the network . . .

But our sources yesterday suggested the monumental problems posed by operating a $250-million-a-year operation with a sometimes slim profit margin made the Hewitt offer impractical on the face of it . . .

Hewitt is a restless, charismatic executive who, over the past 17 years, has made "60 Minutes" one of the top profit centers for CBS and made himself probably the highest paid ($2 million a year estimated) news executive in the industry . . .

It is known that in recent months he has expressed unhappiness with the situation at CBS News and even hinted, on the Manhattan dinner party circuit, that he might switch to another network . . .

Whether this latest maneuver is only one more expression of that restlessness or signals deeper management troubles in the most highly respected TV news organization in the country remains to be seen . . . Also in the News

According to local Arbitron ratings, the first two hours of Saturday night's World Series opener lost out to Channel 5's "Halloween II" locally . . . as the Jamie Lee Curtis thriller even defeated NBC's "Golden Girls" from 9 to 9:30 . . .

In Nielsen's 10 major markets, the Series game averaged an 18.1 rating and a 31 percent audience, losing by a whisker to NBC's prime-time schedule, which registered an 18.2/32. CBS trailed with 12.1/20 . . . Nielsen recorded a 16.1/26 for the three hours of the game on Channel 7 . . .

We hear that over the next few weeks, Lorimar will be altering the story line of "Our Family Honor" to focus more on the police family . . .

In Town: James Earl Jones for a couple of days to do the narration for "Comet Halley," a coproduction of WETA, Japan's Asahi Broadcasting Corp. and independent producer John L. Wilhelm . . . which airs Nov. 26 . . .

Headed for Town: Phil Donahue, who will do his live show from Channel 9 Thursday on the topic of the budget deficit, with Sens. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and Gary Hart (D-Colo.) . . .

If you want to join the live studio audience at 4001 Brandywine St. NW, call 364-3760 to reserve tickets. That's 364-3760 . . .

And from our That Naughty George C. Scott! file: At an NBC press conference in New York Sunday, Stirling Silliphant, writer-producer of the upcoming seven-hour mini-series, "Mussolini: The Untold Story," which airs on the network starting Nov. 24, pointed out that research shows that the Italian dictator -- seen in the movie seducing a British journalist -- was a brutal lover . . .

"It was known that he never took his clothes off and he certainly never took his boots off" . . .

At which point Scott chimed in: "Well, we have something in common" . . .

Honestly, George! . . .

Which seems like an otherwise perfectly good place to point out that "Mussolini" is part of NBC's November ratings sweeps strategy, and that all three networks and independent stations will have special programming for us starting Oct. 30, when Arbitron begins its 28-day survey, which concludes Nov. 26. Nielsen starts its survey the next night, concluding Nov. 27 . . . Other Highlights

NBC's sweeps month offerings include "An Early Frost," about a family confronting AIDS (Nov. 11); the TV premiere of "48 Hrs.," with Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte (Nov. 3); and "This Child Is Mine" (Nov. 4), a movie about a custody battle between adoptive parents and the teen-age mother . . .

At ABC, of course, the big ticket is the 12-hour adaptation of John Jakes' best seller, "North and South," which airs Nov. 3, 5, 6, 7, 9 and 10 . . .

ABC will also offer scary post-Halloween movies "The Midnight Hour," with Shari Belafonte-Harper and LeVar Burton (Nov. 1); "The Execution of Raymond Graham," a live ABC Theatre telecast (Nov. 17) dealing with the death penalty; and "Ewoks: The Battle for Endor" (Nov. 24) from George Lucas . . .

CBS will have two mini-series during the sweeps: an adaptation of Jeffrey Archer's "Kane & Abel," starring Peter Strauss and Sam Neill, which airs Nov. 17 through 19 . . . and the four-hour "Doubletake" (Nov. 24 and 26) starring Richard Crenna and Beverly D'Angelo, about a bizarre double murder and police corruption . . .

In addition, CBS will offer the network premieres of "Risky Business" (Nov. 9) starring Tom Cruise and "Rocky III" (Nov. 16) . . .

CBS will also offer Lucille Ball as a bag lady in "Stone Pillow" (Nov. 5), Kenny Rogers in "Wild Horse" (Nov. 12), Ben Vereen and Lynn Moody in "Lost in London" (Nov. 20), and Jennifer O'Neill as an attorney threatened for defending an unpopular client in "Chase" (Nov. 23) . . .