CBS dumps producer of slumping evening news

February 14, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The first major aftershock from gulf war coverage was felt at CBS News yesterday.

Tom Bettag, the executive producer of "The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather," was replaced, effective immediately, by Erik Sorenson, the executive producer of "CBS This Morning" for the last year.

CBS News' official explanation, given by Tom Goodman, director of press information, was, "We believed it simply was time to make a change."

But there was more to the change than that.

The move was a direct result of the performance by CBS News in covering the gulf war. Dan Rather and company's efforts thus far have been a critical and ratings disaster.

CBS was humiliated Jan. 16, the night the allied offensive began, when its correspondent in Baghdad, Allen Pizzey, failed to get on the air.

CNN stole the show with all-night live coverage from Baghdad. But both ABC and NBC managed to get limited reports out of Iraq's capital.

The reason CBS had no live reports was that it was the only network without a satellite phone hookup in Baghdad. It was relying on the telephone lines at the Al Rashid Hotel, which were shut down immediately once the bombs started falling.

But what really upset CBS brass and the network's affiliates, including WBAL-TV in Baltimore, were the ratings for the network's war coverage. "The CBS Evening News," which two years ago was the highest-rated newscast in the country, finished last behind ABC and NBC for the fourth straight week, according to Nielsen figures released Tuesday.

The firing of Bettag fueled speculation about Rather's future at the anchor desk. Rather holds the title of managing editor and until yesterday was considered by some to be the power at CBS News. Bettag, who has been executive producer since 1986, was Rather's man.

CBS denied rumors that a co-anchor would be brought in. Mentioned as co-anchors are Lesley Stahl and Connie Chung.

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