Broadcast News, Part II
VTR Date: June 3, 1993
Guest: Friedman, Steve
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Steve Friedman
Title: “Broadcast News”, Part II
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And when my guest today joined me here last week, he promised to come back – in 30 years! – to take another long look with me at broadcast news.
For Steve Friedman, Executive Producer once again of NBC’s long-running “Today” show, and former Executive Producer of the NBC “Nightly News with Tom Brokaw”, is considered by many to be the Peck’s Bad Boy – albeit the brilliant Peck’s Bad Boy – of network news.
But, 30 years is too darn long to wait to learn more about the medium from one of its more influential practitioners…particularly if you believe as firmly as I do that increasingly Americans are, or are fast becoming, what they see and hear on the tube; that it…the Tube…is America’s most significant agenda-setter; and that more than any other influence outside of our homes, it teaches us what it means to be a human being here at the end of the 20th century.
Now, Steve Friedman and his collaborator Rosemary Ford have made their new St. Martin’s Press novel entitled “Station Break” into a wonderful vehicle for critiquing broadcast news…so that I’m going to use his novel – and what Mr. Friedman said here last time – to evoke from my guest more of his insider’s precious insights into the camera’s beady red eye.
So, welcome once again, Steve…
FRIEDMAN: Boy, does time fly when you’re having fun. 30 years in a week. Unbelievable.
HEFFNER: Pretty good…
HEFFNER: …those are the…one of the…that’s one of the technological marvels that you were talking about last time. But listen, last time you also said something…I have the advantage of having watched the cassette since our program…you said something I want to ask you about. You said, “People who write about television aren’t as smart as the people who watch it”.
FRIEDMAN: Oh…oh, I, I think that’s 100% true. I think that people…the “intelligencia” who write about television want to downgrade the viewer and think the viewer is some dog who doesn’t know right from Alpo. But I got news for you, viewers know exactly what they’re watching. And they use television as a menu. In other words, they don’t go into the…and watch the same show…they don’t order the same thing on the menu. The people who loved “Three’s Company” can also love “60 Minutes”. The people who watch the Evening News can also watch “Current Affair”. They know what they’re getting from their shows. And then it’s the people who write about television say, “Oh my God, the evening news is going to be like ‘Current Affair’ because look how, look how, look how popular ‘Current Affair’ is and it’s got a, got to fight for that audience”. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Another thing that the people who write about television increasingly do…the good ones are the good ones…Tom Shales, Brian Donlen…those people, but there are many television writers who hate television. They hate the media they’re writing on. The worst guy at the paper, or the worst lady at the paper is writing about TV because they couldn’t make it in another section, and they resent television. And television news is terrible, and the entertainment shows are terrible, and there’s nothing good on television anymore. You know that’s a bunch of baloney. You know, every…every decade we hear about how the previous decade was almost a golden age of television, you know. In the fifties there were a lot of stupid programs on, and we now refer to that as “The Golden Age”.
HEFFNER: Yeah, but now, wait a minute. Are you really “writing off” the people who write about…
FRIEDMAN: No, some of them…not all of them.
HEFFNER: You make it sound as though some of them you don’t write off and most of them you do.
FRIEDMAN: I, I do write off a good portion of those. People who when they look at network news will say: “What is the…who, who said…”…A friend of mine is Chris Wallace, you know Chris Wallace.
HEFFNER: Sure. I don’t know him. I’m old, I know his father.
FRIEDMAN: Does he work in the business?
FRIEDMAN: So, so Chris Wallace of 1980 at the Republican convention…18 seconds before anybody else told the country that George Bush was going to be the Vice Presidential nominee…and remember there was that balloon about Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, co-presidency and all that stuff. And that started a frenzy in the press, and…and the people who publicize these news divisions…they’re, they’re part of the deal, too…who was first? So we’ll have a Presidential news conference on and somebody will say, “Well what network came out first with it”, you know, totally ridiculous, totally uneventful ratings. Ratings and television are one thing and one thing only…sales tools. They don’t say which program is better than the other. Peter Jennings gets more per commercial than Tom Brokaw. Tom Brokaw gets more per commercial than Dan Rather. Why? Demographics. We don’t sell households anymore. The show I’m doing…the “TODAY” show…less than 20% of that show is sold on household ratings. I’ll be a big success if I raise the demographics. But does anybody in the press write about demographics? No, because it’s too hard to explain, the audience doesn’t get it. They equate ratings now with what is the better program. And sometimes, I do say this, sometimes the program that gets the best ratings isn’t the best program.
HEFFNER: But now, wait a minute, you do concede that the people in the medium themselves really start this. I mean the guy on top, the guy with the highest ratings blows his horn. Right?
HEFFNER: And when you’re on top you blow that trumpet.
FRIEDMAN: Correct. But what I’m saying is there has to be a balance there. And that the people who write about television instead of doing rating charts, and a lot of people who write about ratings in television never watch the evening news. I did the evening news for three years. Okay. Never did I see somebody, except Andrew Tindell, basically, write what we were doing, what was good and why. But every week I saw where we were in the ratings. Every week.
HEFFNER: I must admit I was shocked…how many years ago is it now I don’t rmember, when The New York Times first began to publish the ratings each week. Now were you cheering or hissing?
FRIEDMAN: Well, that depends where we were. (Laughter)
HEFFNER: But that’s the point, Steve, isn’t it?
FRIEDMAN: Right. But that’s us. And we keep the ratings for one thing, so we can sell our commercials. But I would like to see, I’d like to see more, more Walter Goodmans, if you will, even though I don’t always agree with him. Then I would like to see these charts which rank the shows from one to 85, or one to 96. Don Hewitt loves the ratings…he, he…every week it comes out he says, “Wow, that’s great, you know”. So the, the…Tom Yellin, who’s producing “DAY ONE” now at ABC, I don’t think he likes the ratings as much as Don Hewitt.
HEFFNER: Isn’t there something mean-spirited about that comment?
HEFFNER: Come on.
FRIEDMAN: Well, look…the, the reason I’m here, and the reason my name is in the paper is because I tell how I feel. And Don Hewitt to me is somebody who can be admired. He’s done a great job. Nobody’s done more for a, a kind of a program…a news magazine program than Don Hewitt. But Don Hewitt pontificates all the time about journalism. And it’s as if he is a priest and everybody else is a heathen. And, and, and sometimes, you know, I have to laugh…I mean, you know what’s in the news now. Don Hewitt doing the Macy’s channel. You know, you know, sometimes I have to say to myself, you know, “Gee it’s pretty good that Don and all the rest of us are heathens together, if you will”.
HEFFNER: But now wait a minute. “Heathens”…you’re talking about the making of a dollar? Many dollars? Does that qualify?
FRIEDMAN: I, I think television journalism…
FRIEDMAN: …made a deal with the Devil, I would say probably in the late sixties, early seventies, and here was the deal with the Devil…we needed more and more of the technological tools to do our job, whether it be satellites, crews, tape crews, live remotes, gizmos to do graphics and everything. And television news basically because of “60 Minutes” became a money-making proposition, where it used to be just public service, basically. And in our deal with the Devil to get all the toys and do all the jobs we can, then we have to justify all the money that’s being spent. And that deal with the Devil made us really worry about the ratings a lot more than before. And I think that if you want to really say what’s wrong, if there is something really basically wrong with the thing, is that deal ran amok in the late eighties when the business people looked at news and information on television, like they did everything else on television. There is an element of public service in what we do, and yet that cannot be negated on dollars and cents alone. On the other hand, you can’t be running a $100 million dollar deficit and expect these large companies to say, “We’re in the public service business”.
HEFFNER: Well, now, wait a minute, “We’re…you can’t expect for the news to run a $100 million dollar deficit and for the network where that happens to say ‘we’re in public service business’”…But you know, after our program last week, something bothered me about it…particularly when I, when I watched again, and that, that…”Why didn’t I ask Steve Friedman about the stated purpose, on the part of the Federal Communications Commission, on the part of the federal Government to grant a license, and that is to serve the public interest, necessity and convenience”?
FRIEDMAN: Well, I would say that that was something that happened in the thirties.
FRIEDMAN: In the twenties and thirties. There really was no network in the twenties, so, you know, it was a bunch of local stations. You really didn’t get network radio until the late twenties, early thirties.
HEFFNER: So franchises are based upon…
FRIEDMAN: I think that was…
HEFFNER: …nothing today?
FRIEDMAN: No, I, I would say that it is very difficult to take that threat…I mean what…it used to be that people did news…Reuven Frank often said this in the fifties, that television news was developed so they could keep their licenses so they could make all this money on their television stations. But, the FCC almost never takes a license away for anything. I mean in, in the sixties or early seventies WBBM in Chicago, CBS-owned station, staged a pot party, broke the law…and they did not lose their license. I mean you almost have to do fraud on some kind of contest to lose a license. So I don’t think that threat…that threat is real meaningful to the people who own television stations.
HEFFNER: Steve, don’t, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not talking about it as a threat, I’m talking about it as a promise and an obligation, and…
FRIEDMAN: Well, well, they could say…I mean a lot of people could say that that’s what they’re doing, that they are presenting news and information in record number on television.
HEFFNER: Yes, but you know, there’s something mixed up here. Last time you were talking about…and you said it just a minute ago…television has always been sales and commerce oriented.
FRIEDMAN: That’s correct.
HEFFNER: there is no honor in going out of business. You’re…this is a consistent theme…”Hey, this is a business”. But it didn’t start out that way except as the business was limited within the framework of the public interest convenience and necessity. Now, can you just dismiss that as…by saying “Hey, that stems from the twenties or thirties”?
HEFFNER: But you, you said to me, you…
FRIEDMAN: But, but the business has evolved to the point, has evolved to the point that if that is a, a cornerstone of the business…
FRIEDMAN: …you can say by putting more and more of news and information on, by getting the latest stuff live, we’re doing that better than ever. But what I’m telling you is with these large expenditures to do all of this…
HEFFNER: Mmm hmm…
FRIEDMAN: …whether it’s to take a thing out of the sky, whether it’s to present people all over the world, whether it’s to have these graphics so people can understand economic news, which most of us can’t even understand today…that it became a huge “nut”, and for us to survive in the climate where these networks, and many of the stations that are part of our affiliated group, are run as businesses, as businesses…that we have to understand that we are part of the business. And if we don’t, we will not succeed. We cannot go in there and say, “We’re in television news and we don’t care about the ratings, and we don’t care about how much money we’re spending, we’re here for the public interest, convenience and necessity”. We cannot just hide behind that because we are part of a business operation, and we have to be run like a business. There, there are many people at NBC, and, and I was critical of Michael Gartner sometimes to let…the former President of NBC News…but he had to come in, in a place that was losing $110 million dollars a year. That was not tolerable by the people who owned the place, the people we worked for, and that’s why some of those changes were made.
HEFFNER: Well, Harry Truman would have said, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”. And all I’m asking, whether there isn’t some premise here, some pledge, that has to be redeemed. Now, you say, well in effect you say, that has…that’s been superseded by a deal with the Devil…
FRIEDMAN: No, but us who do the work…us toilers in the vineyard…have to do the work responsibly. We have to present things on television in a clear, concise way. In a way that people can understand, and present the most important stories in a way that we can tell people that are important. It’s our job not to cross the line, all the time, every day, just for the commerce…but we have to keep commerce interesting. You know the business has changed a lot. I came to New York in 1979, to work on the “TODAY” show, and in 14 years, I used to say, on my first tour of duty on “TODAY”, “You know, nobody ever gets fired for going over budget. But you get fired for doing a 15 share”. Okay? So that was my way of saying we gotta do a good program and worry about the money later. Now what I say is, “You know, we better not get a 15 share, and let me see how much it’s going to cost to do this”. I mean I have changed because the climate has changed. Now I can throw up my hands, and I can talk about “golden days”, and I could say “Huh, I’m not doing that. I want to travel 3 times a year on the “TODAY” show. That’s it. I’m traveling 3 times a year on the “TODAY” SHOW. If you don’t like it, lump it”. But if I do that, I’m walking away from trying to make sure an institution survives and thrives. Survives and thrives. Us who are in it are there because we want to do one thing: survive and thrive. And that’s what we’re trying to do. But in…with those limitations. It is no longer carte blanche, or Diners, as we used to say.
HEFFNER: Now look, “survive and thrive”…what about that promise?
HEFFNER: What about the pledge? What about that license? And I’m talking about your bosses. I’m not saying…
HEFFNER: …”Steve Friedman…”…
FRIEDMAN: Well, but my bosses…not Andy Lack who, who, who does television and has done television…but the people at General Electric are setting certain parameters, as is Larry Tisch, as are the people at Capital Cities. Everybody has to understand that the nineties aren’t the eighties, aren’t the seventies. And if you don’t believe poor old dull Steve Friedman, talk to Roone Arledge. In 1979 ABC gave him carte blanche…do anything you want…and he had carte blanche for a long time. I think if you really put Roone Arledge in this chair, gave him some truth serum, he would tell you he no longer has that carte blanche. Even he is victim of the new business of the nineties. Now, he will also tell you that it’s his job, and all the people that work at ABC News to make sure that the money does…or…not so much carte blanche…doesn’t drive down their coverage. That they have to figure out ways to do it better, and more efficient. That’s why they have a partnership with the BBC.
HEFFNER: You know the, the funny thing is that as much as…when I went over our…the cassette of our…and I said to somebody before “the kinny”…which shows you where, where…
HEFFNER: …where my age…
FRIEDMAN: Are we on the SHOW OF SHOWS here?
HEFFNER: (Laughter) When I went over the cassette, I did come to all of the statements of yours about it’s a business, it’s a business, it’s a business. Then I went back to your book, the novel…
HEFFNER: And again, I think you use that as your way of putting the needle into this notion it’s a business, it’s a business, and you said yourself last time: “The big business mentality in broadcasting”; that’s what you were able to set in bar relief in your, in your novel. You sounded very disapproving.
FRIEDMAN: I was more disapproving in the late eighties than I am now.
HEFFNER: You wrote the novel…the novel just came out.
FRIEDMAN: I know. But ideas are formed…the novel, as I told you last time…I started thinking about it, and doing it really in the seventies during the shootout of the, of the alleged Patty Hearst thing at the…in Englewood. I thought the, the late eighties were the worst. I think that you had new corporate mentality that came in and it was slash and burn. I think everybody, Larry Tisch, General Electric and Cap cities, who didn’t slash and burn like the rest of them because they were in the television business…I think they learned a valuable lesson. And I think the “DATELINE” thing taught people a valuable lesson. You only can slash and cut so long before it’s going to come up and hit you even harder. So you’ve got to be…do your…do everything you do in a measured way. I am much more optimistic today than I was five years ago…about television, and about network television and about television news. And let me, let me say about the novel…and I keep saying this…
HEFFNER: Let’s take a station break right…
FRIEDMAN: It is a novel. I said a lot of things in here that I thought were interesting and fun. I did make some statements, but it is a novel. I mean, it’s fiction.
HEFFNER: Now, if you were at the “TODAY” show right this minute…
HEFFNER: …and you had one of your interviewers talking to a novelist…
FRIEDMAN: Mmm Hmm.
HEFFNER: …You would be sure as shooting expect them to needle that person, and say “now come on…you’re revealing…
FRIEDMAN: Oh, sure.
HEFFNER: …something about yourself”.
HEFFNER: So what are you revealing? Not something 10 years ago, or 15…
HEFFNER: …years ago…
FRIEDMAN: Well, I mean…you know, I, I like the days in 1982 when I could say “Nobody gets fired for going over budget”. That was…that made it a lot easier to do, you know, the kind of television that I like to do. But, you know, I…in…look, in the book…I made fun of a lot f the characters that I have met through the years, people who had no business being in television. Who looked at television as if it were insurance, a shoe store, but a glamorous place to, to make a lot of money.
HEFFNER: A business.
FRIEDMAN: Yeah. But I think it’s more than a business.
FRIEDMAN: Okay. I think television is more than a business. And I think, in the novel, those people who treat television as more than business, and television news as a calling…come off real well in the novel. And those who don’t don’t come off so well.
HEFFNER: You’re starting to sound like those people who talk about “jerrrnalism”…
FRIEDMAN: You mean THE PRIESTS?
FRIEDMAN: But remember, when I talk about “jerrrnalist”, when I talk about those people…I talk about the pompous people who believe that only they have the answers. Everybody else is below them, and that, “Gee, how can you even question anything they say?”
HEFFNER: But now, what do you mean “a calling”? Describe that “calling”.
FRIEDMAN: Well, I, I, I…I don’t know that anybody…that’s good at television news, except maybe a few, who got in it to make money. Most of us got in it to have fun, and because it’s the greatest ego gratification you can have.
HEFFNER: That’s quite a “calling”…ego gratification.
FRIEDMAN: Well, to me that’s part of the fun. Let me tell you, there’s nothing better than doing a television program because it’s on, it’s off, you get to come back the next day…hopefully, you get to come back the next day. And that is instant gratification. I could, I don’t understand how anybody works in the movies. You do a movie, get the idea…two years later you shoot it. A year later it gets released…I mean by then one should be bored. You know, people like me, we have short attention spans. You know, like to move things along, you know, and, and that’s what I think television is. But the “calling” of television journalism, and the reason we’re in it…is to let people know what’s happening, so they can make up their minds about what they should…and hopefully…we’ll have a better world for it. But that’s our job.
HEFFNER: Steve, what’s this “short attention span” business, and how does it inform
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we’re doing the “TODAY” show. Bryant’s interviewing the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, he can go almost anywhere and they could press a button, and they can ask a question of Warren Christopher, or they could tell Bryant what’s on their minds. I think eventually you’re going to have real participatory television democracy, and a lot of information shows where it’s really an electronic village…McLuhan…you’re gone, but you live on.
HEFFNER: To what end?
FRIEDMAN: Accountability. Holding people responsible. If people come on television…you know, people are very, very serious about when they’re given something to do. If somebody’s going to be in a crowd for a political candidate…that’s a television Town Meeting. They do their homework. Very few “hot dogs” show up. They’re ready with their questions. I found a lot of the questions at the debate, where it was in Virginia, I found their questions better than the journalists’ questions, you know, because the journalists are trying to pontificate. Have you ever seen a presidential news conference where there was a good question? (Laughter)
HEFFNER: Yeah. Let’s, let’s not…
FRIEDMAN: Right. But I mean they’re, they’re more interested, sometimes, for posing for David Gergen, or George Stephanopoulos, or Bill Clinton, or their boss at home, then they are of asking a question. But when Americans ask questions, they ask questions. They ask what’s really on their minds.
HEFFNER: You know, you’re making it sound as if you didn’t mean it when you said very emphatically last time, “My job is not to educate the public”. Now it sounds as though you think…
FRIEDMAN: Well, I…
HEFFNER: …that is your job, and that you do.
FRIEDMAN: No, no, no. My job is not to educate the public on what I think. Okay? My job is never to educate the public based on what I think. I don’t matter. And I told you this last time and you laughed in my face. But I don’t matter.
HEFFNER: You’re just a messenger.
FRIEDMAN: That’s right, but our…television’s job is to educate the public, if they want to be educated by it. And they are going to be educated by these inter-active shows. I mean, I’m telling you…inter-action is, is going to be there. It’s going to be unbelievable what people can do with their television sets and who they can talk to, and who they have access with. And the politician that most understands that, right now, is not Bill Clinton, it’s Ross Perot. Ross Perot understands that. He’s…his message is wearing thin now because, guess what…he has no answers. But he understands that the most. You want Ross Perot on the show…tell him you’ll give him a half hour. He’ll be there.
HEFFNER: Steve, I think we’re getting the signal now…I’m just about to see 30 seconds…
HEFFNER: …out of the corner of my eye…
FRIEDMAN: We’ll be back in 30 years.
HEFFNER: See, we know better now.
HEFFNER: We’re not going to talk about another 30 years…you come back a hell of a lot sooner than that so that we can carry this on. It will be interesting to see what does happen with this inter-active stuff, and maybe that’s why our mutual friend, Don Hewitt, has done what he’s done. And that’s the time at which I said…point at which I say thank you for joining me today, Steve Friedman.
And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about our program today, our intriguing guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as that old friend of mine used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.