Connie Chung stays in constant motion

June 17, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

In one breath, CBS anchorwoman Connie Chung says, "I'm having a difficult time, I really am. I haven't figured out yet what my routine should be. . . . I'm not complaining. But I don't know how I'm going to do all the work."

In the next breath, Ms. Chung says that in addition to her other duties she is going to spend more time in Washington reporting stories for CBS News.

"I myself, want to contribute to the effort of breaking stories," she said. "Believe me, when there is so much news breaking out of Washington, I know it's a gold mine, and I still have some sources there. I think some doors will be able to open up to me. In fact, there's one I'm working on now."

Ms. Chung, 46, is not an easy interview. A conversation with her is full of what seems to be contradictions.

Two years ago, she asked CBS to let her out of anchor duties on a prime-time newsmagazine on the eve of its debut because she wanted to concentrate on having a baby and the magazine duties left too little time for that.

Now, she's co-anchoring the "CBS Evening News" with Dan Rather five nights a week, is set to start tonight as solo anchor of a new weekly magazine show, "Eye to Eye With Connie Chung," and is telling interviewers that she and her husband, Maury Povich, are still committed to trying to have a baby.

The thing is, Ms. Chung seems so sincere when she says these things.

Take her comments on ratings, for example, which she made during a telephone press conference this week to promote "Eye to Eye With Connie Chung," which premieres at 9 tonight on WBAL (Channel 11).

When asked how she feels about the ratings for "The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather and Connie Chung" since her arrival June 1, she said, "You know what? I learned a long time ago not to watch ratings. It's a fruitless endeavor. . . . I don't even know, have they come out for this week? . . . I have so much else that I can worry myself about. You know, there's so much tsuris [Yiddish for anxiety or grief]. . . . Why should I concern myself even thinking about ratings? I'm serious."

And, yet, ratings and the money that comes with them are the very reasons Ms. Chung has suddenly gone from a low-visibility weekend and substitute anchor at CBS to the hottest network news star of the summer featured on the covers of virtually every magazine at supermarket checkout counters.

Ms. Chung got the co-anchoring shot on "The CBS Evening News" in part because Mr. Rather's ratings with women and younger viewers were weak.

It's too soon to tell if Ms. Chung has made a difference. Much was written about the jump of a full ratings point for "The CBS Evening News" during Ms. Chung's first week at the anchor desk. But the ratings released Tuesday for the second week show that most of that new audience evaporated after checking out the new team, and the newscast is back roughly where it was before she joined.

But the evening news is not really what makes Chung so valuable to CBS. The evening news -- with its older audience and costly news bureaus -- will lose money this year for CBS even if Ms. Chung means 2 more ratings points.

But a successful prime-time newsmagazine, like "Eye to Eye," could mean $40 million in profits for CBS News. That's how much "Dateline, NBC" will be worth to NBC this year. And that's what CBS is hoping for with "Eye to Eye With Connie Chung."

The story of Ms. Chung is not that everybody suddenly decided she was a great TV journalist or that the time had finally come for a woman to co-anchor the nightly news. Instead it's that Ms. Chung is the biggest beneficiary to date of the boom in network newsmagazines, which will result in nine of them airing in prime time this year.

CBS did not make tonight's "Eye to Eye" available for preview. Chung said tonight's show will be on Roger Clinton, the brother of President Clinton. There will also be a story on the death of a Marine colonel, which the soldier's family feels was connected to a drug cover-up, and a report on teen-age sexual harassment.

Ms. Chung said tonight's show is "timely," has "news value" and includes the first "prime-time interview" with Roger Clinton since his brother's election. She said she will continue to do all her own reporting for stories on "Eye to Eye."

When asked again how she planned to find time to do that kind of reporting, as well as anchoring, Ms. Chung sounded almost realistic.

"Fortunately, I had a bank of about 11 stories going into the premiere," she said. "And that's because, for the past several months, I've been out shooting stories. So, I'm in fairly good shape for the first 11 weeks. But beyond that . . .

"Well, what I have done since I started the 'Evening News' . . . is that first weekend I flew to Arizona on Saturday and did a story and flew back on Sunday. Is that the way my life is going to be? I think so."

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