A typical day in a typical week at the Calamity Broadcasting System: The chairman of the board was rumored to be resigning, the president of the news division was supposedly being replaced, the producers of the morning and evening network newscasts were allegedly out on their veritable ears, and a wild rampage of budget cutting had division managers all but poised on their window ledges in suicidal despair.
"Dan Rather and the pope are the only people who will still have their jobs on Monday if all these scenarios come true," one CBS News producer cracked. What Gen. William Westmoreland with his lawsuit and Ted Turner with his hostile takeover bid and Jesse Helms with his right-wing end run couldn't do to CBS, CBS may be capable of doing to itself.
In broadcasting, the phrase "bad day at Black Rock" means strife and turmoil at the corporate headquarters of CBS Inc. on Sixth Avenue in New York. Friday wasn't just another bad day; it had a Go tterda mmerung air. From among the wild flurry of rumors about changes in the corporate structure came one that alleged that at 4:30, CBS would issue a company memo announcing that Chairman and President Thomas H. Wyman, currently under fire, would resign.
Not only was there no resignation, there was never any announcement of any kind scheduled. So strong was the rumor, though, that "Entertainment Tonight" sent a film crew to record the nonexistent announcement, CBS employes poured into hallways and milled expectantly at the appointed hour, and NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw phoned a CBS News executive to see what he could learn on his own, particularly about the fate of embattled CBS News President Edward M. Joyce, also among those rumored for the high jump.
There was nothing to the rumors and there was everything to the rumors -- no axes fell or heads rolled on Friday, but the nearly unprecedented seismological disturbance in the rumor mill pointed up again what dire times these are for CBS Inc. and for its most visible, most prestigious component, CBS News. Earlier in the week, "60 Minutes" executive producer Don Hewitt had done his part to hype the hysteria when he made a daft, impromptu offer to CBS Broadcast Group chief Gene F. Jankowski to join with other colleagues and buy CBS News, should it be put up for sale.
CBS News was, Jankowski replied through an intermediary, not for sale. Things hadn't gone that far, although one veteran CBS insider could be heard to philosophize, "In the current environment, nothing is impossible."
Anchor Dan Rather calls CBS News "a glass house with loudspeakers" where a "huge unruly family" holds raucous internal "discussions" that all outsiders can witness. He says he realizes that public and professional fascination with these machinations is far greater than interest in what's happening at ABC News or NBC News, although both of those shops are having their troubles at the moment, too.
"At the other two places, they also live in glass houses," Rather says. "But far fewer people care as much about the organization at those two places as people at this place care. Which is the reason we're the most interesting to cover. We're the best." Although Rather did not want to comment on specific incidents and rumors, nor the Hewitt gambit in which he became involved, he did say he was "very optimistic about current portents" for CBS.
On what he bases this optimism remains, for outside observers now, a mystery. Things could scarcely appear to be worse. CBS is suffering from more than a head cold, more than deep depression and more than bottom-line fever. And with much of its internal combat going public, it has lost something that was near and dear to the company during its golden years: a sense of decorum, an aura of dignity, a semblance of stability.
What has swept through CBS, more palpably even than rumors, is a wave of drastic budget slashing brought on, corporate spokesmen insist, by expenses incurred in defending CBS against the hostile takeover attempt by Atlanta's Ted Turner, rebuffed earlier this year when CBS bought 21 percent of its stock back from shareholders, thereby increasing company indebtedness to a rousing $1 billion. This crunch crisis is exacerbated, a spokesman says, by a broadcasting industry recession, the emergence of a "disinflationary marketplace." Advertising rates and revenues are not going to rise as they once did, so the only way to improve the profit margin is to cut costs.
If CBS News is not for sale, CBS revealed late last week that one of its owned and operated stations, KMOX-TV in St. Louis, is; indeed, the whole owned-stations division is said to be near the point of foundering, considering the profit center it ought to be. CBS is also pulling out of its joint ownership, with Home Box Office and Columbia Pictures Industries, of Tri-Star Pictures, as part of a plan to sell off more than $300 million in assets. The CBS Records division is stumbling, and CBS Sports didn't even put in a serious bid for rights to air the 1988 Olympics, which NBC recently bought for about $500 million. Perhaps most startling of all, CBS Entertainment is suffering a prime-time ratings slump that could see the network lose its long-held Nielsen championship crown to NBC.
The company is in steep trouble, and some insiders think Wyman, by overreacting to the Turner prank, helped put it there. Worse for Wyman, disfavor with his performance is not limited to underlings. CBS founder and former chairman William S. Paley, who installed Wyman as his successor in 1980, is said now to have decided Wyman is the wrong man for the job. When Paley crony and Loews Corp. Chairman Laurence A. Tisch increased his holdings in CBS to 25 percent of the stock earlier this month, it was seen in some quarters as another step in the ouster of the unwanted Wyman, engineered by Papa Paley himself.
CBS spokesmen will insist that misadventures in the corporate realms of CBS and rampant morale problems at CBS News are parallel stories, but they in fact intersect. Some of those in the news division feel Wyman lacks commitment to CBS News and what it has come to represent. They suspect that Wyman and some other corporate types see CBS News as merely a nuisance, a magnet for litigation and troubles with Washington. That was what was behind Hewitt's slightly zany grandstand play; he and colleagues, including Rather, were sending a message to corporate that they feared for the integrity of the news division -- not just in case of a hostile takeover, as was announced, but in fact from current CBS management.
Instead, the Hewitt bid was interpreted by some as a cry for the scalps not only of news president Joyce (who is avidly disliked for his aloofness, isolation from the troops and alleged devotion to the ratings race), but also of former news president Van Gordon Sauter, now a Black Rock vice president himself. Hewitt has since insisted this was not his intent.
In recent weeks 74 CBS News employes have been discharged, others coaxed into early retirement, but the cost-cutting only starts there. All three networks will be going to Geneva to cover the November summit talks, but CBS is committing by far the fewest dollars to the coverage. NBC's budget is a reported $2.5 million. ABC News will spend an estimated $1.8 million. CBS News will spend $600,000, tops. As one insider laments, "It leaves us no margin for error whatsoever," should an unforeseen crisis develop at the scene of the talks.
"It's the Big Squeeze," moans one CBS News executive. The cuts affect even "The CBS Evening News," which maintains its leadership in both ratings and performance as the state of the art in network newscasts.
Over the weekend, CBS insiders were bracing for magazine articles due out today in Time and Newsweek and for what was anticipated as being a particularly nasty assault from New York magazine. The hardest thing to find is a correspondent or producer at CBS News who is not by this point disgruntled, and disgruntled journalists are experts at finding willing listeners to their grievances.
An NBC executive said last week that the rough ride CBS is having looks familiar. "This is Silverman Revisited," he said sympathetically. "All the magazine takeouts on the troubles CBS and CBS News are having are what NBC had to deal with a few years ago. The place is in the same kind of turmoil we were in when Fred was here. People who are insecure and in fear of their jobs become sources for stories about all the troubles the organization is having; people in the building get crazy and make it look crazy to the outside. This is only the beginning."
Bill Moyers, the enormously respected CBS commentator, said from his office last week that he was trying to remain above the fray. "The only thing when there's a war going on is to do journalism," Moyers said. "Nobody really knows what's happening. Everybody runs out every morning to get the papers and find out what is happening."
According to one CBS insider, even the mighty Moyers is having trouble getting film crews for his stories, as part of the cutback that has led some CBS staffers to rename their network "the BBC -- Budget Broadcasting Company." Moyers says he is not aware of any problems in getting crews.
Moyers dismissed the idea that the central conflict in the division now is between the old guard and the new guard at CBS News. "Not at all," he said. "That's the biggest bunch of crap I've heard in a long time. There are young people here who love journalism and old people here who love show business. This is not generational. This is journalistic." Moyers has been one of the leading in-house detractors of "West 57th," a high-concept CBS News magazine show that has become to some a symbol of changes for the worse at the news division, away from hard-line news and into glitzier crowd-pleasers.
In fact, the program, in its six trial outings last summer, did pieces just as serious and sober as any ever done by "60 Minutes," albeit more energized in terms of production. But Moyers worries that there is only a finite amount of air time the network will ever allocate to the news division, and that the time should be filled with sterner stuff than "West 57th," even if that sterner stuff fails to draw a large viewing audience.
This particular conflict is one of the subplots in the larger melodrama, one that last week seemed to take on the trappings of a life-and-death struggle for a news division that has long enjoyed a reputation as the most respected and admired in broadcasting. At CBS News, they try to keep the Edward R. Murrow plaques spotlessly shined up, both literally and figuratively. Rather says internal dissent always centers on the means, never the end, which is the independence and integrity of CBS News. The question now appears to be whether lofty moral values like independence and integrity can survive the cold brutalities of the new bottom-line world.
In a way, the CBS financial troubles are a colossal joke on the company, made possible in part by a still-cresting wave of deregulation at the Federal Communications Commission. Commercial broadcasters, including networks, all greeted this trend like prisoners of war being liberated by an unlikely Rambo -- Reagan-appointed FCC Chairman Mark Fowler. Fowler has abolished the regulations that kept broadcasters socially responsible and still let them get filthily rich. Now those same broadcasters may be discovering that when let loose in a jungle, it may be better to be on a leash held by a strict master. You can't run wherever you'd like, but you're also less likely to be eaten alive.
Perhaps the crises at CBS are only superficial manifestations of a greater upheavel in American broadcasting, and American life. Surely there is more to the sad story of CBS, to its decline and fall if that's what all this represents, than merely another stormy saga slugged out in executive suites. No, the societal ramifications of this one will likely be reverberating for years and years to come.