CBS News executive Don Hewitt, whose speeches are often among the most provocative in the television news business, is expected to cause another stir tonight by calling for a dramatic scaling back of network foreign coverage -- and the creation of a foreign news wire service for television to fill the gap.
Hewitt, who is executive producer of CBS' "60 Minutes," proposes in the text of a speech released last night that the wire be called Associated Television or AT and be created under the umbrella of the Associated Press.
Although others have talked about a television wire, and there are a few news wires that supplement the networks in their coverage abroad, Hewitt's proposal is expected to draw criticism from those who fear that the network evening news shows would become even more similar than they already are.
"Would such a plan homogenize the three of us?" Hewitt asks in the speech. "Just the opposite. Free at last from having to provide our own coverage of every river that overflows its banks and every firefight that overruns some border, we could begin to use our best people to do more original reporting ..."
The speech is scheduled for delivery tonight in Orlando, Fla., at a convention of the Radio and Television News Directors Association. Hewitt is scheduled to receive the Paul White Award in honor of the former CBS newsman.
Associated Press President Louis D. Boccardi said last night that AP already has a service similar to the one proposed by Hewitt that covers Washington for television clients. "We think it is an interesting idea, something we would be interested in talking about," he said.
"The first step is for him to make the speech and see what the reaction to it is," he said.
Hewitt is expected to begin his speech with a disclaimer that even though it could sound "as if I have been sent here by management to be their mouthpiece, I haven't ..."
"The most important thing we can do right now is to make sure that whatever changes we have to make to alter course are made by us and not imposed on us," he said.
Hewitt cites an instance from last February as an example of the potential advantages of a television wire service.
When Wall Street Journal reporter Gerald Seib returned to Zurich that month after being held briefly in Iran, the three major networks had a total of 39 people on the story. CBS' report, he says, consisted of arrival shots and a brief statement by Seib that he had not been mistreated and that he was glad to be out of captivity.
Hewitt says that although networks should maintain their presence in "key locations" around the world, "perhaps stories like Gerald Seib getting off an airplane should be left to a television wire service ...
"If the AT had bureaus in the Middle East, that wouldn't mean that any one of us couldn't send our own reporters to the Persian Gulf; it just means we wouldn't have to go on doing it day after day -- maybe for the next 10 years."
Recognizing that the pressure of television news comes in part from local news teams that often "scoop" the network news programs, Hewitt said, "The time has come to play a new game. Six hundred stations are already beating us at the old one.
"If we could leave it to a wire service to provide us with the what and where, we could concentrate on the who and why, and that's what ABC News, CBS News and NBC News do best."
Hewitt is expected to close his speech by saying that "thrashing around trying to fight the undertow is a sure way to go under. If you don't like my plan, come up with one of your own."