Facing churn, CBS boss may refine 'Evening News'

October 20, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Andrew Heyward might be the first network news executive to take over a show and predict that things are going to get worse under his tenure. But that's exactly what the new CBS News vice president is doing during his first week on the job as the new boss of "The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather and Connie Chung."

"I think we're heading into some very tough times given the affiliate switches and clearance problem," Heyward said when asked about ratings for his newscast.

"There are some places where we're going into markets where there are literally no news department and the channel position is like almost triple digits. Where that's happening, we're obviously going to take a hit."

One of the cities Heyward is talking about is Detroit, a Top 10 market in which a series of bold moves by Rupert Murdoch's Fox network and Scripps Howard Broadcasting left CBS without an affiliate. As a result, earlier this month, the network was forced to align itself with WGPR (Channel 62), a UHF station with a weak signal and no news department that relies on paid religious programming for much of its revenue.

CBS says it will spend more than a million dollars to help WGPR build a local news operation. But until it's up and running, the "CBS Evening News" will have no local lead-in in Detroit. Without that, its ratings are expected to drop precipitously.

With CBS facing a similar situation in several other cities, Heyward is being realistic when he predicts a drop in the ratings of his newscast, which is now second behind ABC's "World News Tonight."

Being realistic is a Heyward hallmark. In fact, it might be what won him the promotion to executive producer of the evening news at CBS.

Heyward -- who will discuss tabloid journalism tonight at Johns ,, Hopkins -- was a senior producer at "The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather." He left in 1987 to develop a prime-time newsmagazine for the network to counter "The Cosby Show" on NBC. The result -- "48 Hours," a show CBS could produce for about $300,000 -- about half a million dollars less than any drama or sitcom the network could put up against the then invincible Cosby.

CBS continued to finish behind Cosby in the ratings. But now, instead of losing money, it made as much as $10 million a year.

Since 1993, Heyward has been making the same kind of profits in his role as executive producer of the network's "Eye to Eye With Connie Chung." In fact, the current glut of prime-time newsmagazines owes as much to Heyward -- and his formula of losing the ratings war with newsmagazines, but still making money -- than anyone else in television.

Heyward says he's not going to re-invent the CBS nightly news.

"The program is certainly going to continue in the direction it's been going, which is that it's a hard news program. We're going to continue to provide a capsule summary of the news of the day," Heyward says.

"But we're also going to try and enhance the package, so that we give our viewers the news plus. And plus, I think, is an intelligent perspective -- some context that helps people understand what's happening and what the implications might be rather than just a passing along of today's developments."

Will Rather and Chung continue in the dual-anchor format?

Heyward says he's committed to dual anchors, but adds, "I think it's a format that has more potential than you've seen on CBS so far. I think it needs to be better, but I also think it can be."

Speaking more specifically about Rather and Chung, he says, "We have two people who are very different, but are both very experienced reporters. They are very talented, very smart. And, I think that if I can find those strengths and put them on the screen, the audience will come away feeling you actually get more for your money at the 'CBS Evening News.' "

TV TALK

What: "Has Tabloid Journalism Invaded the Mainstream Media?" -- a panel discussion with Andrew Heyward, vice president of CBS News, Washington Post columnist and critic Jonathan Yardley, and David Zurawik, television critic of The Sun.

When: 8 tonight

Where: Shaffer Hall, Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus

Tickets: $15

Call: (410) 516-7190

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