Offering a vast array of media stars and prime times, U.S. television executives have spent the last few weeks urgently peddling their networks to the Soviet Union, each trying to be the first to get a presummit interview with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
The competition for what many in television believe will be a historic scoop has sent network officials to Moscow, New York and Washington to plead their cases.
They have wined and dined Soviet officials, offering carefully guarded blueprints of how Gorbachev could appear on morning television, the evening news or even in prime time, facing television stars known not only in the farthest reaches of the United States but also in the innermost circles of the Kremlin.
One key network producer said, "There are a lot of bridesmaids out here that are yearning to be kissed."
The pitch to the Soviets has not been easy, several network negotiators said. There is evidently no simple way to persuade communist propagandists that one American capitalist network is better than another.
"They view all of us as practically working for the Reagan administration or the government, so they see little difference in that way," said a network executive, who asked not to be identified because he said negotiations had reached "a delicate stage."
For guidance on what is important to the Soviets, network officials said they had studied why the Soviets chose to give Time magazine an interview with Gorbachev in September, as well as the Soviets' decision to give a televised interview to a major French network when Gorbachev was in Paris to meet with French President Francois Mitterrand.
Gorbachev, in his opening remarks to Time, said that after many requests for "various speeches, statements and interviews," he decided to talk to Time because, "First of all, when I first saw the way your questions were formulated, I felt -- maybe I'm mistaken, and if I am, correct me -- that the questions themselves reflected concern about the state of Soviet-American relations."
But network officials felt that Time also won the interview, in part because Editor-in-Chief Henry A. Grunwald and other magazine editors had conducted a similar session with Leonid Brezhnev in 1979 and had handled that one to the Soviets' liking.
NBC Vice President Timothy J. Russert, who helped negotiate an interview with Pope John Paul II for NBC's "Today" show, said last week that his network hoped the week that the "Today" show spent in Moscow in September 1984 would help persuade the Soviets to award his network the coveted interview.
NBC Vice President Gordon Manning made an extended trip to Moscow last month to present a pitch for a network package being offered throughout the summit coverage.
Manning had lunch or dinner with Soviet news officials virtually every day and staged a lavish reception at Moscow's National Hotel for Soviet officials and journalists in Moscow.
In contrast, ABC's Paris bureau chief, Pierre Salinger, made his contacts in Moscow more quietly. Other courtiers included CBS, Cable News Network and the Public Broadcasting System.
Early betting last week was that NBC would be first, primarily because the network seems to have wooed the Soviets the most intensely. However, one NBC correspondent involved in the negotiations predicted that the Kremlin would invite the anchormen of all three networks to conduct the interview.
CBS officials, who are yearning for anchorman Dan Rather to get the nod, have said that he might not because of his "especially tough" questioning of Gorbachev at a news conference earlier this month in Paris.
Rather asked why Soviet Jews are not allowed to leave the country, and how many political prisoners the Soviet Union holds, tough questions that seemed to irritate Gorbachev during his first Western news conference since becoming general secretary of the Communist Party. Gorbachev declined to comment.
"I watched [Rather] shoot himself in the foot," exulted Walt Rodgers, ABC's high-profile Moscow correspondent.
Rodgers, the other American correspondent who was able to direct a question to Gorbachev, asked whether he had violated his plea to lower the presummit rhetoric, a query that was less dramatic than Rather's but at least drew an answer.
Some CBS officials said last week that they are still hoping the Soviets will allow all three major networks to interview the Soviet leader at the same time, giving Gorbachev what the television industry calls a "roadblock" for viewers trying to switch channels.
If Gorbachev does decide to annoint one American network for an interview before his meeting with President Reagan in Geneva Nov. 19-20, a number of television officials believe the word could come as early as this week.
It is not clear whether the Soviets have eliminated any possibilities, and some network officials say there is still a chance that the Soviets will not grant any interviews to the American networks before the summit.
Moreover, the rush by American networks to bring the Soviet leader into American homes has upset some White House officials, who feel there is little hope that Soviet television will reciprocate.
And there is still a nagging question among some network officials about whether winning the first interview with the Soviet leader will be viewed by some as less than a major journalistic coup.
Richard N. Salant, who was president of CBS News when the network interviewed former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1957, told former CBS correspondent Daniel Schorr that his network had suffered from "massive criticism . . . for having carried the Khrushchev interview . . . . "
Asked whether that could happen this time, Peter Jennings, anchorman of the "ABC Nightly News," said last week, "No, I firmly believe that the American viewers are sophisticated enough to view this in the proper perspective and that the effort for such interviews and for the summit cannot do anything but help by expanding our knowledge of this extremely important world leader."