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annals of communications
The New Yorker - February 14, 1994

promise her the moon

To the television networks, the star power of a Diane Sawyer is ever more crucial. So another contract bidding war has begun--led again by Fox.

by ken auletta

"Diane is the John Madden of network news," a Fox executive who is engaged in a feverish but still quiet contest with ABC, CBS, and NBC to recruit Diane Sawyer said last week. With dozens of channels in existence and more on the way, the four networks are competing to hire brand names, just as they competed over John Madden, football's outstanding analyst, after CBS lost the contract for National Football Conference games last December.

Sawyer's contract with ABC News, which pays her nearly three million dollars a year, expires at the end of this month. "PrimeTime Live," the weekly magazine of which she is a co-host, has risen intothe top fifteen most-watched weekly programs. She has displayed versatility when sitting in for Peter Jennings on "World News Tonight" and for Ted Koppel on "Nightline." Some viewers sense in her a feigned sincerity or a fake supermarket-tabloid intimacy. "All right, was it really the best sex you ever had?" she once asked Marla Maples. Still, Sawyer has accomplished what stars are supposed to accomplish: she has delivered an audience. Since ABC knows this, Roone Arledge, the president of its news division, has been courting Sawyer diligently--giving her a new executive producer last month and now offering her a new, four-million-dollar-a-year contract.

But, as was true with Madden, the three other networks are also pursuing Sawyer. Howard Stringer, the president of the CBS Broadcast Group--smarting from his loss of Madden and the N.F.C. games to an extravagant bid from the Fox network, and from his near-loss of the "60 Minutes" correspondent Ed Bradley to ABC--has been especially ardent. A tall, joke-cracking Welshman with an Oxford education, Stringer has mounted an offensive based in part on charm. He recruited Henry Kissinger, who is a CBS board member and a Sawyer confidant, to join the chase. Together, they have told Sawyer what a loss it was for CBS when she moved to ABC, in 1989. To accommodate her talents, Stringer has proposed a half-hour nightly news analysis and commentary patterned after "Nightline," which would be broadcast at 7 P.M., right after "CBS Evening News with Dan Rather and Connie Chung." Her base pay would "exceed four million dollars," a CBS executive says.

Stringer's pitch to Sawyer goes like this: A nightly platform would allow her to stay on top of the breaking news of the day--something that is not possible for a weekly magazine show. It would be the only single-topic network news platform between 7 P.M. and 11:30 P.M., when ABC broadcasts "Nightline." It would be largely unscripted, and so would stretch her talents. It would originate from a New York studio, and thus promise a less arduous travel schedule than she has now and more time with her husband, the director Mike Nichols. It would make the statement that news--not entertainment, not tabloid TV--was ascendant, even in the arid zone between 7 and 8 P.M. And such a nightly program, which Stringer is talking to Hollywood studios about jointly syndicating, could make her very rich, since she would own a piece of the program.

The richest dollar offer so far has come from Rupert Murdoch's Fox network. Murdoch has met personally with Sawyer. Richard Liebner, Sawyer's agent, hinted to ABC officials that Murdoch had offered close to ten million dollars annually if Sawyer would agree to anchor a magazine show on Sunday directly after John Madden and the N.F.C. games. Its competition would be "60 Minutes." A Fox executive puts the offer closer to seven million dollars. Murdoch, less concerned with costs than with establishing a franchise, has now paid liberally to launch a sports division and may want Sawyer to launch a news division. "We want somebody with news credentials," an important Fox executive says. "If we got her, we would be very aggressive in news."

NBC has also made its interest known. Andrew Lack, the president of NBC News, has met with Sawyer several times, and has discussed creating a prime-time news-magazine show. He has told her that she would not have to share anchoring duties, as she does with Sam Donaldson on "PrimeTime Live." In addition, she would serve as backup anchor for the evening news. "It would be terrific to have her at NBC," Tom Brokaw, the anchor of "NBC Nightly News," says. "She's a premier television-news player. One of the knocks on us is that we don't have enough talent on the next level down--enough star quality. Though we have an impressive generation of reporters coming up behind me, the television audience is not aware of this. It would be helpful to me when I go away to have someone like Diane. I'm on a short leash. Though we have people who can step in, they all have day jobs."

THE courtship of Sawyer has had its ups and downs. Two weeks ago, ABC News executives thought she was ready to sign on. A meeting between Arledge and Liebner was scheduled for Friday, January 28th. Then Arledge cancelled the meeting, because, he says, he knew that Sawyer had the flu and first needed to speak with her agent. The meeting was rescheduled for Monday, the thirty-first. Arledge's superiors grew nervous. Worried about losing Sawyer, Robert Iger, ABC's president, opened his own line of communication with Liebner last week.

The meeting between Arledge and Liebner on January 31st was businesslike. Liebner knew that he had leverage. He knew, he told associates, that "there is no one in the industry who does not want to play to get Diane." He knew that Ted Koppel was engaged in sometimes fractious negotiations with Arledge. Liebner also knew that ABC News was smarting because "NBC Nightly News," guided by the former ABC producer Jeff Gralnick, was narrowing the ratings gap between the two evening news programs. With all this in mind, Liebner instantly said no to the offer--four million dollars--that had been on the table for weeks. The two men parted with Arledge asking Liebner to come back with a counterproposal.

When they spoke on the telephone the next day, Liebner did not specify a figure that Sawyer would accept, but he did suggest a range of between eight and twelve million dollars. The two men agreed to continue talking. Then, late on Wednesday, February 2nd, Iger wandered over to Arledge's office to review where ABC stood with Sawyer. Before the night was out, Arledge had successfully completed telephone negotiations with Koppel, by agreeing that ABC would pay him what one knowledgeable participant says is between five and six million dollars a year. Arledge and Sawyer met Thursday evening, and afterward he was hopeful that they could conclude something in a week or two. But he acknowledged, "She's like a kid in a candy store who's been told she can have anything she wants. It's very difficult to decide."

OBVIOUSLY, ABC knows that it's in a bidding war. What the network hopes to avoid is nightmarish negotiations of the sort it had with John Madden. Earlier last month, according to three sources with intimate knowledge of the discussions, ABC and Madden shook hands on a four-year, nine-to-ten-million-dollar deal that would bring Madden to the network's "Monday Night Football." So certain of the deal was ABC Sports that it went to Dan Dierdorf, who has been the network's analyst for the Monday-night games, and told him he would be losing his job to Madden. A celebratory dinner with Madden, Iger, Dennis Swanson, the president of ABC Sports, and Madden's agent, Barry Frank, of the International Manage-ment Group, was held on January 3rd.

"We had a handshake," a still bitter ABC executive says. Barry Frank will not confirm or deny the handshake. "If that's their feeling, I won't comment," he says. Within days, Murdoch offered Madden three times as much as ABC had--more than thirty million dollars over four years, a source close to Madden says; twenty-five million, a Fox source says--and Madden was gone.

To prevent another such loss, ABC is hitting back at its rivals. It has reminded Sawyer and Liebner that Fox has no news division, and that if she were to be the anchor of a Sunday magazine show on Fox it would enjoy the strong lead-in of football games only during the football season, and that her year-round competition would be "60 Minutes," the most durable hit show in history. To go to NBC, the ABC people say, would be to start a new magazine show when she already has one.

The bidder that ABC most worries about is CBS. "It's the CBS offer that's in play now, not Fox's," an ABC executive said at the end of last week. When Sawyer or Liebner notes that CBS would allow her to define the top news story of the day and put it in perspective, her ABC bosses scoff. A ranking ABC News executive says, "It's the stupidest idea in the world. Very few stations would clear it." He points out that the hour from 7 to 8 P.M. is controlled not by the networks but by local stations. It is an hour when stations slot lucrative syndicated shows, like "Wheel of Fortune" and "Entertainment Tonight." All that CBS can guarantee is that Sawyer's show would be broadcast on the seven stations the network owns, which reach just under twenty-five per cent of all American homes. Because the shows that local stations currently run from seven to eight tend to appeal to younger viewers, and a younger audience translates into more advertising dollars for the stations, ABC claims, local CBS-affiliated stations would shift Sawyer to 4 or 4:30 P.M. Thus she would not be live but would probably have to tape the show at 2:30 P.M. Inevitably, news that broke in the afternoon would be excluded.

Stringer, at CBS, concedes that obstacles exist. "No question, I have to start small," he says, agreeing that Sawyer would have to tape the show. Instead of focussing on the negatives, Stringer, who lured David Letterman away from NBC in December of 1992, argues for boldness. "This is a business of imitation," he says. "All research says you can't do something because it's not done now. The most important network news programs--'60 Minutes,' 'Sunday Morning,' and 'Nightline'--all began to a chorus of low expectations. They were in local-access time. This idea is going to work. It's going to work because from 7 to 8 P.M. is now a wasteland. Outside of 'MacNeil/Lehrer,' there is no food there for the brain or the soul."

NO matter who wins, the bidding for Sawyer is likely to escalate demands from all other marquee names. "The dollars will continue to get bigger for the stars, and will be reduced for everyone else," a television talent agent says. This is already the pattern in book publishing and records and movies: in those fields, everyone pursues big names because it is now presumed that hits will carry the rest of the business. These businesses have in common a yearning for brand names. With more channels and movies and games and home-shopping and sports and computer bulletin boards to choose from, brand names like Sawyer and Madden stand out. "Uniqueness and distinctiveness become more and more important as people are confronted by multiple choices," Eric Ober, the president of CBS News, says. And Arledge says, "If five hundred new colas were introduced tomorrow, Coca-Cola would be more important than ever. The dependable, well-established brands survive--unless they self-destruct."

And for those on the inside brand names become a royal pain--a source of internal friction between the haves and the have-nots, a financial drain, an endless array of egos to stroke and insecurities to mend. They provide trophies--a way for companies to claim victories even when they lose money.

It is no wonder that Daniel Burke, the president and chief executive officer of Capital Cities/ABC, who will retire next week after thirty-three years at Capital Cities, is not at all wistful about his impending departure. "I suspect that people feared the worst when Barbara Walters broke the million-dollar barrier in news," he says. "Yet the republic stood. Nevertheless, this is a part of the network business that I won't miss." (c)

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