Is Sam Donaldson the battleground for ABC powers-that-be?

April 17, 1992|By Newsday

New York -- What would a contract negotiation with ABC News' Sam Donaldson be like if it were not hot and boisterous?

Well, Mr. Donaldson's contract is up and -- guess what? -- the negotiations are hot and boisterous.

Mr. Donaldson has vehemently refused to accept a cut -- any cut -- in his $1 million-plus salary according to widespread reports at ABC News. Because the network is trying to force strict cost-measures on the once-lush news division, Mr. Donaldson's demands have not been well received.

And now Mr. Donaldson has told associates he may leave the network, perhaps even to begin a syndicated news program like Crossfire" with George Will, his longtime colleague on "This Week with David Brinkley."

This negotiation is the fourth major talent negotiation at ABC News in recent months. Barbara Walters nearly left for CBS News last year, before getting a huge salary boost. Stone Phillips of "20/20," left for NBC News earlier this year, while Forrest Sawyer has held discussions with CBS.

But Mr. Donaldson's dispute has drawn widespread interest at ABC News for other reasons. Many believe that it represents a clash between the old management style of the network, as embodied by ABC News president Roone Arledge, and the new style, as embodied by Stephen Weiswasser, executive vice president of ABC News.

In most cases, the president of a division would have final word on matters like this. But ABC News is not like most cases. Mr. Weiswasser, who joined ABC News last fall, is charged with bringing costs under control. He does not report to Mr. Arledge, but to corporate chieftains at Cap Cities-ABC.

As a result, some believe Mr. Arledge and Mr. Weiswasser are struggling over the issue of Mr. Donaldson's pay.

Mr. Donaldson's unhappiness, which has been simmering for months, is an open secret at ABC News. An emotional man, he has made little secret of his discontent, particularly with his reduced role on "PrimeTime Live." He joined the show as a co-anchor in August 1989, but Diane Sawyer has gradually become the dominant presence on the program.

Meanwhile, there has also been speculation about Mr. Donaldson's future on "This Week." Mr. Donaldson would like to take over the show when Mr. Brinkley retires, sources say, but he has yet to receive assurances that the job is his.

Mr. Donaldson said Tuesday, "I would like to stay at ABC. It's been my home for 25 years, but clearly I'm not going to stay under certain conditions. I'm not certain whether I'm going to stay."

Mr. Weiswasser, calling the negotiations "intense," said, "I hope we can work out a deal. I have been in this business long enough to know that negotiations are never easy, and this isn't easy. But I hope he holds us in the same regard we hold him."

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