Last spring, Roger Mudd, anchor and political correspondent, assembled a large group of television producers, associate producers, correspondents and reporters at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. These were to be Mudd's troops. A veteran of CBS, where he had lost out to Dan Rather in the race to replace Walter Cronkite on "CBS Evening News," and also-ran in his short-lived pairing with Tom Brokaw on "NBC Nightly News," Mudd had at last been given a show of his own by NBC: a news magazine that was, for a time at least, to be called "American Almanac." It was to be broadcast out of Washington, the first prime-time show from the nation's capital.
Mudd, then 57, told the assembled crew, many of whom he had hired from outside NBC, many of whom had no experience with a news magazine, that he had high hopes for this effort. He described it as his last chance, at his age and at this point in his career, to have a show of his own. It sounded, to some assembled, like a kind of crusade. The show would eschew trash and flash, the ambush journalism of Geraldo Rivera, the personality journalism of "60 Minutes," even the traditional magazine show format. Mudd said he wanted to show the way ordinary people lived, he wanted a window on the parts of American life that television always seems to ignore. People coping with traffic jams was one idea put forward, Americans' obsessions with their lawns was another.
"Lush photography, and a feeling of quiet and sort of stateliness," is how Mudd describes the concept now. "Most of our television and most of our news moves too fast, and you're force-fed so much information that your system can't digest it, and I thought that there should be some space, once a week . . . for things to slow down, so people could be a little more contemplative. I don't mean that this would be some sort of Oxford don you go off with for an hour, but it would take a different look at things, and it would not be caught up in the hurly-burly of daily, frantic journalism."
Lawrence K. Grossman, president of NBC News, a former advertising executive and former president of Public Broadcasting Service, would echo that later in meetings. Be different, he told staffers. Take risks.
Much later, some would recall that as the group left the Greenbrier no one really knew exactly what an "American Almanac" story was to be. "We knew what it wasn't, but nobody could really say what it was," remembers one. On the other hand, those present say they remember Mudd himself saying not to worry too much about that. It would become clear with time.
Whether it has, has been a matter of continuing and pained debate at NBC in the past few months. Tonight at 10, barring an act of God or network executive, when the network unveils an overhauled version of the show, the preliminary answer may be at hand.
The show is no longer called "American Almanac," however. In fact, in the past few months the name has changed at least four times, from "American Almanac," to "Profiles," to "86/87," to its present title, "1986." Wags at another network have begun referring to the program as "June," and others, in a reference to the worst-case estimates of the show's life span, are calling it "A Night to Remember." It can safely be said that the name changes have been the least of its problems.
"1986" is more than another try for NBC. It is also, as Mudd has suggested, something of a last hurrah for himself and a point of pride for his team, which is heavily populated by CBS alumni. There has been some resentment of that team at NBC, and matters weren't helped when a senior producer with the show was quoted as saying that NBC lacked bench strength necessary to staff the show from inside. And "1986" is more than jobs, though many of the show's 68 staff members have contracts only good for the life of the show. "It's been a very painful and frustrating year," says Los Angeles producer Ned Judge. "Now that we're going on the air I would hope that the network will keep its promise and let the show find its audience . . . because there's sure been a lot of pain and sacrifice."
Network employes on and off the show say network support for this one has been unprecedented. A successful show means prestige for the network and the news division in particular. "There's a lot riding on this one," says Grossman. NBC is No. 1 in ratings for entertainment, and last week "NBC Nightly News" beat "CBS Evening News" for the first time in years. A hit magazine would be a feather in the cap of NBC News President Grossman. There are also financial rewards. A magazine costs anywhere from a third to half what it costs to produce an hour of prime-time entertainment and can bring in enough revenues to support the entire news division, which spends an estimated $250 million a year.
*So far, however, "1986" has had more identity crises than a college freshman. First, the weekly debut planned for August was postponed until January and the show aired six pilots through the fall. Critical reviews, however, ranged from mixed to merciless, and the joke around NBC was that even Qaddafi had better pilots than Executive Producer Edward Fouhy.
In January, the show was taken off the air and its weekly debut postponed to March. In February, Fouhy informed the network that there were not enough stories in reserve, despite the expenditure of an estimated $10 million, and that the show's debut would have to be pushed back. Inside the network, at least one faction lobbied in favor of pulling the plug entirely and starting over with a new staff.
By March, in response to skepticism from local affiliates, puzzlement from audience surveys and sentiments within the network, the "Almanac" concept was junked entirely in favor of something with a harder edge, and Mudd's role in story selection diminished. Connie Chung, regarded as a network star, was elevated to coanchor of the magazine.
In addition, the network named Chung and several others as substitute anchors for Tom Brokaw, a position that until then had been held solely by Mudd. A new managing editor, Bob Chandler, a former CBS executive who had worked on "60 Minutes," was added to help the executive producer with story selection and definition. He soon acquired the nickname "the butcher." And the word in-house was that there were now so many people running the show that future story meetings would take place in a stadium; editing would be done by applause meter.
"1986's" tortuous evolution has even become monologue material for David Letterman. Some nights the show's title, written in blood or haunted house squiggles, has been lowered on a placard while horror show music plays and blood-curdling shrieks are heard offstage. Letterman, for reasons unstated, has taken to referring to Mudd as Gerald Ford.
And as for the initial mandate to take risks, tonight's show, with stories about teen-agers exploited by door-to-door sales companies, Connie Chung on problems with passenger vans and light trucks, Roger Mudd interviewing Mary Martin, and a piece about the vulnerability of U.S. borders to terrorists, is arguably far from that. Among the staff, initial high hopes have been replaced by a guarded optimism, a hope that the show will fly and the network will give it time to evolve.
"I think people will see it's a good, solid magazine broadcast worthy of being watched," says correspondent Ed Rabel. "It's hard-edged and upbeat. Not one of these magazine shows in the beginning had a good time of it. It's a brand new program."
*"The summer will be quite critical in terms of the quality and in terms of ratings," Connie Chung says carefully. "I believe that NBC is the type of network that will keep the show on if it's good regardless of ratings. If it's not a good program . . . "
*The network's top executives appear to be backing the show for the duration. NBC Chairman Grant Tinker has a reputation for sticking with entertainment shows like "Cheers" and "St. Elsewhere" until they find their audiences, and he has promised that "1986" will be on the air "forever and ever" if it is good.
Does he think it is? "I think it's just fine," Tinker says. "All those shows news magazine shows took a long time to succeed and so I don't expect any given episode of our show to bowl me over."
If that sounds like faint praise, Tinker answers, "it should be. It's not 'My Fair Lady,' and as such it's very promising . . .I've never been involved with an entertainment show that came together magically and immediately. This is going to be a slow-starting show. If we look at it and deem it to be intrinsically good, we don't have to see any ratings at all." Others at NBC say that unless it performs well or gets a reasonably enthusiastic critical reception, it will be gone by fall.
Some say the worst is past, but many close to the show disagree. "We are no more ready to go on the air now than we were in March," says a member of the staff, echoing the sentiments of several others. "Nothing has changed. We now have a show that's at least broadcastable. But it may kill us. They don't have enough good pieces to make it to the fourth show."
"The whole thing is so sad," says another.
How did a network come to stake its prestige and what is now estimated to be about $12 million and wind up with a show that after nearly a year of preparation was not ready to go on in March? How did something that set out to be so different wind up looking like, as one NBC source described it, "part '20/20,' part '60 Minutes' and part 'West 57th' "?
"You could write a book about it," one "1986" staffer says wearily.
Some say that part of the problem was underestimating the difficulty of starting a network news magazine, particularly with a new production staff largely inexperienced in prime-time production, and senior people who had never worked outside of daily television news. Part of the problem also was the concept change in midstream.
And some say the answer lies in an apocryphal tale known as the Widget Story, which goes like this:
A field producer, the television equivalent of a reporter, goes to his boss, a senior producer, with an idea for a story about widgets. Fine, the producer says, so the field producer takes a crew, spends a week in North Carolina and comes back with 40 cassettes of tape only to run into producer B, who says, "Everybody knows that this year's widget story is Los Angeles widgets." Off goes the crew again, returning a week later with another 40 cassettes, only to run into producer C, who says, "Did you shoot red widgets or blue widgets?"
Cut to Manitoba where the crew and producer film the red widgets and accumulate 40 more cassettes. Back in Washington the editing process begins with considerable debate among producers A, B and C over how to shape the piece. Finally, after untold suffering and expenditure, the story is presented to Mudd.
"Widgets?" says Mudd, looking mystified. "Did you say widgets? I thought we were doing midgets."
NBC's quest for a successful television news magazine has been long and arduous. People at the network have to consult lists to figure out how many of the shows have been tried; by most estimates the number is about 14: "First Tuesday," "Chronologue," "NBC News Presents a Special Edition," "Weekend," "NBC Magazine With David Brinkley," "NBC Magazine" without David Brinkley, "Prime Time Sunday," "Prime Time Saturday," "First Camera," "Monitor," "Summer Sunday," and several more.
"We've changed magazines the way you change pencils," says one NBC employe. Some may have had the wrong formula, others the wrong people. Some got respectable ratings in one time slot but bombed in another. But, spurred on perhaps by the successes of CBS' "60 Minutes" and ABC's "20/20," NBC hasn't given up.
Serving up four stories a week, however, is harder than it looks, according to those who have tried. "A lot of things can go wrong," says one veteran. "It takes terrific instincts. You've got to know what a story looks like. It's a visual medium and you have to be able to close your eyes and see a story in your head, and you have to be able to sit down and say to a junior producer, this is the way you see the story, how it could really grab an audience."
In other words, someone with what staffers call "a burning desire to have his vision on television." Don Hewitt, executive producer of CBS' top-rated "60 Minutes," is mentioned often as the prototype. According to Hewitt's biography, "60 Minutes" operates with a minimum bureaucracy, no formal story meetings. Hewitt's stamp is on everything, every story, every detail, everything one sees on the air. "The concept of a program takes on the life and spirit of an executive producer," says another source. "Not an anchorman or anybody else."
* The potential for disaster absent that kind of control is heightened by a phenomenon known as the thousand-pound pencil. In television news even the most preliminary reporting requires movements of producers, crews and camera equipment. Costs mount quickly and decisions about stories become all the more critical.
It is suggested that the lingering problem with "Almanac/1986" boils down to this: "60 Minutes" has Don Hewitt, "20/20" has Av Westin, and "1986" has Ed Fouhy.
Fouhy is a former Washington bureau chief and vice president at CBS and ABC, former Washington producer of Walter Cronkite's evening news, a one-time Saigon bureau chief. He is described by friends and colleagues as a man with good news judgment, a man who can get a camera crew from the White House to Capitol Hill faster than anyone in town. His coworkers describe him as unflappable, extremely open to others' ideas. He is well liked by the people who work for him.
Numbers of those same people, however, say that openness and group consensus, and years of training in the fires of hard news, may not be the best combination for creating a news magazine, and that Fouhy has been struggling to ride the monster.
Whatever start-up problems there were became public in February when Fouhy had to go to Grossman, the man who had hired him, and report that there were not enough stories ready to start the show up weekly.
Fouhy's explanation is that the concept change in midstream rendered a lot of the stories sitting in the "story bank" unusable. Others say the problem was and continues to be creative vision.
"The only problem with the show is administrative and getting a clear sense of what they want to do," says one staffer. "No one assigns priority or which pieces should be edited first -- since they have no vision they haven't a clue about what they want first."
"No one could tell us what a story was," says another producer. Until March, the story selection process was cumbersome. Ideas were entered into a list that was put in a computer, and producers and correspondents then waited to hear results of story board meetings, as the story conferences were called. Meetings sometimes went on for hours, and like bad meetings everywhere, often ended with no one really sure what had been decided.
"Consensus would never be reached. Out of 200 or more subjects, seven or eight hours later, we'd end up with only a handful," says a third. "It was the most excruciating, inefficient way of working." Fouhy's willingness to listen to all ideas is fine, says a fourth, "but at some point someone has to make a decision."
*By late this spring, a managing editor had been added and Brandon Tartikoff, the president and whiz kid of NBC Entertainment, had sent a show doctor of his own, a Canadian named Ivan Fecan, to help resuscitate the show's pace and style. All the while, rumors of friction between Mudd and Chung flourished, and there were press reports, discounted by staff members, that the "1986" crew was demoralized after watching the more CBS' so-called yuppie news magazine, "West 57th."
There was, and continues to be, bitter disagreement among some of the senior production staff and the newcomers about the selection and editing of stories. Fecan reportedly commented to several staffers that he had been asked to make '80s television out of '50s television and what he wound up with was 1968, or, as the story has been repeated, Vietnam.
A few on the staff say it is unfair to blame Fouhy for the show's problems -- that he was saddled with an unworkable concept, an initially inexperienced staff and Washington facilities much less sophisticated than those available in New York. (Why the show is in Washington is another question. It is widely known that Mudd prefers Washington to New York, but he and Fouhy both say that the show is in Washington largely because the network had an empty third floor on Nebraska Avenue when WRC radio was sold, and that being away from New York is an advantage.Sources close to the show, however, say that 90 percent of the network's resources -- technical, archival, creative -- are in New York, and that working out of Washington has been a handicap. The show is carried to New York each week for final editing.)
"A fair analysis would lead to a lot of answers of what went wrong," says Senior Producer Sid Fedders. "It is not just one person. It's a shame the show didn't work out at first, because I cannot remember when we've had greater support from the network. And the atmosphere is certainly right for success. We just have to find the magic."
Grossman's defense of his man is unequivocal: "It's easy to take potshots at the top . . . Fouhy is the executive producer, he chose the first program, and I think it is a very strong show. After this all the gossip and rumors will be blown away."
What if the critics are right?
"If they're right, something will be done," Grossman says. "But you don't yank people out."
Fouhy says the job is similar to others he has had: "hiring people, administering a budget, establishing priorities and dealing with journalism." He also defends his creative record. "We have lots of good stories and lots of not so good ones. The trick is to know the difference.
* " . . . I guess the jury is still out," Fouhy says. "We'll see how the program goes."
The "1986" bureau on Nebraska Avenue is cool and blue and quiet on the Saturday before the taping of the first new show. Downstairs in the small studio, technicians are hammering away at the new set, a silvery diamond-shaped platform with the white numerals 1986. Fouhy sits behind his desk. He was at first reluctant to do the interview, exasperated, he said, by months of living in the fishbowl, by the delays and what he regards as inaccurate press reports about the show's progress. When he agrees to be interviewed, he is accompanied by three others: Gordon Manning, NBC executive and the network liaison with the show; Bob Chandler, the show's new managing editor; and Ivan Fecan.
The four are careful with one another, and defer. But they are agreed on one thing. Decisions for the new show have been collegial.
Who decides when to cut off a story that's not working, for example? "It's collegial," Fouhy says.
Whose idea was the original concept? "Well, like most television shows, it was a collegial concept," Fouhy says a few minutes later.
How will the new show be different than the old one? "Why don't we all join in on that," Fouhy suggests, looking at his colleagues, then adds, "I guess the thing we started out to do is make it contemporary, compelling, interesting to a broad range of people. We have investigative pieces, cultural pieces, profiles, a wide variety."
*Fouhy and the others point out that "60 Minutes" bounced all over the CBS schedule for several years before finding its place, and then in a reasonably protected Sunday night slot that for many years had the luxury of tailgating the afternoon football games. NBC people say that even Hewitt has been known to falter, recalling a profile show called "Who's Who." The first anchor team of ABC's "20/20" was jettisoned after the first show was ridiculed, and even now, the show's ratings are static. And last, Fouhy says, one of "60 Minutes' " best sources for story ideas is viewer mail, a resource that "1986" does not yet enjoy.
Fouhy says he is weary of gossip and speculation about coolness between Mudd and Chung (exaggerated) and friction between senior staff. "People don't care about any of us," Fouhy says. "They care about the television program and we're very proud of a television program that we're going to put on the air."
At the conclusion of the interview, Fouhy walked a reporter down to the small studio where construction of the new set is under way. Technicians, the show's director and lighting designers scurry about with tool belts and intent faces. Every so often one darted up to Fouhy and asked a question, which he considered and answered.
Fouhy turned and said: "Just when you're trying to be thinking about editorial stuff, some guy will be saying what color do you want the carpets. You know, they're asking me questions in there about the lights, I'd really rather be massaging one of those pieces up there. But this is very important and you've got to do it, and we've got a budget to worry about."
Is there anything he would like viewers of the show tonight to know?
"Yes," Fouhy says. "If they have really good story ideas, our phone number is 885-5002."