The Dan Rather "black hole," as it has become known in news circles, is probably one of the most unusual things to have happened in television.
This is what took place. Dan was down in Miami to cover the pope and anchor the "CBS Evening News." To Dan's chagrin CBS Sports was broadcasting a whale of a tennis match between lady stars Lori McNeil and Steffi Graf. Dan was informed that the "Evening News" might have to be cut to make time for the tennis. Rather was furious and said if CBS Sports cut into his show, then CBS Sports could do all the news that evening.
It was a standoff until 6:30 rolled around and Rather was told he had to hold off on the pope until the tennis game was over. Dan, in fury, took off his mike and walked out of the studio to call his boss in New York.
Now it gets interesting. While Rather was in the hall the tennis match ended. But there was nobody in the studio to present the evening news. So CBS went to black -- pitch black -- while CBS network executives from New York to Key Biscayne were screaming at each other, "My TV set is on the fritz!" After six minutes of blackness Dan came back on the air with an upbeat report on the pope. But it was too late.
Ever since that night, known as "Black Friday at Black Rock," the CBS brass have been scratching their heads trying to figure out what happened and what can be done about it. Chairman of the Board Larry Tisch said, "This will never happen again." Howard Stringer, the CBS News president, said it even more strongly: "This will never happen again!" Three thousand CBS executives opened their windows and shouted, "This will never happen again!!"
It is one thing to say it, but another to actually do something constructive.
A source at CBS told me that one of the ideas the executives came up with is to station a pit bull by Rather's desk. Every time Dan makes a move toward the door the bull will start chewing his leg.
Another idea, in case the pit bull doesn't work out, is to put Rather in chains in the control booth with Diane Sawyer holding the key.
A news producer wants to let Dan sit in the umpire's chair at the tennis open and adjudicate the match on center court. Hopefully, by calling the matches, Rather will develop as much interest in tennis as he has in Afghanistan. It will also give him an opportunity to go straight from McEnroe to Judge Bork without a break.
A TV expert on black holes has come up with voiceover audio tapes that would automatically start playing if CBS screens all over America darkened. The voice would say, "Don't turn the dial. You are now watching George Bush campaigning in a West Virginia coal mine." Or, "The blackness you now see on your screen is a picture of the U.S. Supreme Court from the neck down."
Whether CBS will resort to any of these strategies is not known at this time. Rather feels terrible about the blackout and as penance has offered to wear tennis sweaters every night on his show.
To make matters a lot worse, Nielsen took a survey and discovered that 25 percent of the viewers would want to watch women's tennis, 20 percent said they would rather tune in to the "Evening News" and 55 percent said if they had a choice they would prefer to stare at a black screen.