It doesn't take CBS genius -- and good thing

January 17, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

News item, Jan. 6: CBS plans to withdraw its financial support of a prestigious science competition for high school seniors.

News item, Jan. 12: CBS announces it will pay the NFL $2.5

billion over the next five years to carry AFC games.

"Everyone has different priorities," Ann Korando was saying yesterday, and you could almost hear her shrug over the phone.

Korando is a spokeswoman for Science Service, the Washington-based, nonprofit organization that founded the Westinghouse Science Talent Search in 1942.

The contest awards $205,000 in scholarships to young scientists for research projects in math, science and engineering.

And 21 Maryland students are among the 300 semifinalists who will compete for national honors Jan. 27, two days after the Super Bowl.

Which event is more important?

Just follow the money.

Five Westinghouse winners have gone on to earn Nobel Prizes, and 70 percent have earned Ph.D.'s or M.D.'s.

But such is the state of our society, no one is even surprised anymore when sports takes priority over education, or when business interests come before the community's as a whole.

Fortunately, the contest is not in trouble -- reports of CBS's possible withdrawal provoked a flurry of interest from other Fortune 500 companies, Korando said.

Still, how can a company be willing to spend $500 million a year on NFL football but not $1 million a year to support an academic institution?

Because Westinghouse has emerged as a media giant after buying CBS, and math and science no longer fit its -- ahem -- corporate image.

And you thought major-league baseball was bad.

Westinghouse bought CBS, then renamed itself CBS.

In this era of mergers and acquisitions, you can't tell the corporations -- or their agendas -- without a scorecard.

"I know the Science Talent Search people are out looking for an alternative, which is a prudent thing for them to do," CBS spokesman Jack Bergen told the Miami Herald in an article that )) appeared Jan. 6.

Two days later, the Wall Street Journal reported on the contest's search for a new sponsor, running the item at the top of its front page.

And yesterday, Bergen appeared to be in a face-saving mode, saying that CBS was still interested in serving as sponsor.

"We are looking at that right now," he said. "It has less to do with the amount and more to do with whether it fits the company as we sell off our industrial and technological businesses.

"Does it belong in a media company? Increasingly, we think it does. We're not a science company. But we own 200 stations around the country. The scholarship program plays itself out in all these cities.

"It's looking more and more like we'd like to keep it. But we have not made a decision yet."

Well, it might not be CBS's choice.

"They don't want to be left out of the consideration," Korando said. "But they don't get the first right of refusal. We are looking at every package along the way."

Sort of like the NFL, but in this case bright young minds will benefit, not greedy sports owners.

"It's the great thing about America -- you do have freedom of choice," Korando said. "And fortunately, everyone sees the importance of education."

Of course, a little reminder in the form of negative publicity never hurts.

CBS is committed to funding the talent search for another year, and reportedly is considering a new journalism-related event to take its place.

Science Service, meanwhile, reportedly is targeting firms with scientific interests, though it would consider Disney, the owner of ABC.

One network tweaking another?

That never happens.

"It's actually going to be even better than it was," Korando said. "Over the last few years, the funding has not been as great as it has been. We've had to make some cutbacks. Now, we'll get to bring some of the tradition back."

It's a happy ending, just like the kind you occasionally find on TV. But how many other worthy causes suffer from corporate neglect? How many could use a similar break?

CBS might be an easy target, but it isn't the first corporation to regret a needless, insensitive decision, and it certainly won't be the last.

Imagine what kind of place America would be if corporations spent less time fixing their images and more time fixing their communities.

If networks fretted as much about their social obligations as they do about the NFL and "Seinfeld."

If Westinghouse winners received as much attention as high school All-Americans.

Ah, but enough ranting.

As Ann Korando said, everyone has different priorities.

When a company will spend $500 million a year on NFL football but not $1 million a year on the future scientists of America, what more needs to be said?

Pub Date: 1/17/98

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