Monday, August 16, 2010

A lesson learned

             For better or for worse, and in all modesty, a decision that I helped make 33 years ago today changed the way that television networks now report the news.
            It was late afternoon on Tuesday, August 16, 1977, when the bulletin bells on all the wire service Teletype machines at ABC News, CBS News and NBC News began sounding with word that Elvis Presley had died.
            With less than three hours until air, the constant in each of the three newsrooms was a scramble to put together a report for that evening’s network broadcast.
I was one of three writers on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite at the time, and I recall some interesting, and surprisingly passionate, debate about whether Presley’s death should lead the broadcast. Some argued for it, while others – saying that Elvis was a has-been – argued against it as the top story.
Those were the days when the gatekeepers of the news, those of us who helped decide what the audience learned each evening, cared more about what we thought was important than about what the viewers would prefer to know.
Add to this mix the fact that Roger Mudd was substituting for Cronkite that evening, and, as one of the top producers on the broadcast at the time told me, since none of the day’s major stories “involved Capitol Hill, Roger didn’t give a damn.”
But this being television, the real problem with the Presley story was picture; we had a lot of file footage, but we couldn’t use it.
Colonel Tom Parker was Presley’s agent, and his organization owned everything Elvis, and would demand huge payments for use of any film or tape that contained the icon’s image. Parker, who had successfully sued news organizations for violating this right, couldn’t be reached that afternoon, and the CBS lawyers said we could not use file footage without Parker’s permission.
There were two other important news stories that day: Former President Ford endorsed then President Carter’s plan to turn over the Panama Canal, and then Soviet leader Brezhnev wanted to mend relations with the United States.
In the debate over the lead story, I was on the non-Elvis side, arguing that he was old news, that the developments involving the Panama Canal or Brezhnev were much more important to the grand scheme of things. Our argument prevailed, and the CBS Evening News on August 16, 1977, led the show with the Panama Canal story, followed by the Brezhnev story.
We relegated the death of Elvis Presley to Roger Mudd reading a thirty-second voice-over at the top of the second segment, after the commercial, using some file footage from the Ed Sullivan Show.
Boy, were we wrong.
The other network news shows both led with Elvis’ death, and they used a lot of file footage. Producers at those networks later explained that they didn’t care about possible lawsuits, they just wanted to report the story. It turned out that no lawsuits ever were filed, and overnight ratings of the three broadcasts showed that millions of viewers at 6:32 p.m. switched from the CBS Evening News to a network that was reporting Presley’s death.
That night, the CBS switchboard was besieged by viewers complaining about our abbreviated coverage, and in the days following Presley’s death the Evening News received sacks of letters condemning us for our elitism. We learned then that there are some stories that should lead the broadcast not because of their importance to world events, but because of their relevance to the audience.
It was a lesson I took with me when, a decade later, I became News Editor of the NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw: Fred Astaire died on June 22, 1987, at the age of 88, six years after he had last performed. There was no debate, we led the program that evening with Astaire’s death. I don’t remember what other news there was that day, but I do know that no one complained about our decision.