Dan Rather takes a deep breath as '48 Hours' inches away from hard news

November 06, 1995|By Ed Bark | Ed Bark,DALLAS MORNING NEWS

"48 Hours" and romance novels are a mismatch, Dan Rather readily agrees.

That said, he reluctantly played along last week when his long-running CBS newsmagazine contributed a companion hour on bosom-heavers after a prime-time episode of "The Young and the Restless."

"I don't like this romance novel program," Mr. Rather said recently. "I wish we hadn't done it. Period. Paragraph. No excuses. That's not why I got into news. But there are other views. And as a team member in a collaborative process, sometimes I have to take a deep breath and say, 'OK, let's give it a shot.' "

Mr. Rather, who turned 64 on Halloween, is taking more deep breaths than he'd care to these days. "48 Hours" is prime time's only single-topic newsmagazine, but higher-ups at CBS want that to stop.

In times of "big-get" interviews and multiple quick-reflex stories, Mr. Rather said he'll probably have to acquiesce. His bargaining power is minimal. Scheduled Thursdays at 10 p.m. opposite television's two most talked-about dramas -- "ER" and "Murder One" -- "48 Hours" ranks 78th in the prime-time Nielsens with a measly 6.8 rating. The program had a 9.0 rating last season, with each point equaling 959,000 households.

"We're in a tough ratings fight. We walk through Death Valley every week," Mr. Rather said. "How do we keep '48 Hours' alive, and how do we keep its core integrity? That's what we're wrestling with right now."

Mr. Rather has even less leverage on another news front -- next year's national political conventions. He persistently has lobbied for extensive coverage of "one of the most informative civics lessons we can have collectively as a country." But he knows that's out of the question, and he is resigned to it.

"On this subject, I'm considered as old-fashioned as spats on a hominy wagon," he said. "This is the reality. It isn't going to happen on CBS, ABC or NBC. What you'll see in 1996 is severely truncated coverage of the conventions. This is an argument lost."

Mr. Rather's longevity at CBS will be underscored anew during the heart of the presidential primary season. On March 9, he will have spent 15 years as Walter Cronkite's successor on the CBS Evening News. Mr. Cronkite himself spent 19 years in "the chair" before fading to semiretirement at age 64. Mr. Rather occasionally allows himself such thoughts.

"Covering a big, breaking story on live television is about as close to heaven as anyone as flawed as I am is likely to get," he said. "I want to go as long and as hard as I can, because this is my passion. I don't want to hang 'em up. But do I think about it sometimes? Sure.

"I fantasize about the Ted Williams exit. You hit a home run in your last at-bat, you go through the dugout, you do not pass the clubhouse, you go to the parking lot, you drive off and you say, 'That's it, folks.' But very few people get to do that. Only Ted Williams can write that script."

Mr. Rather and his wife, Jean, are accustomed to leading separate lives, he added.

"We're happiest when each of us is doing what we really love doing. She knows how much I love covering news. I know how much she loves painting. But we spend a lot of what's called 'quality time' together. So we've been able to strike a fairly good balance.

"I do have an 'off' switch. I can click it off. I just don't like to do it."

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