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The Press: Will the Morning Star Shine at Night?

13 minute read

On Barbara Walters’ cloth-covered bedside table in her West 57th Street Manhattan apartment—next to the lacquered box she brought back from Jackie Kennedy’s 1962 trip to India, the hand-carved backscratcher from Gerald Ford’s visit to China last December, and all the other gewgaws gathered in her hectic travels—there sit two alarm clocks. For years Walters, the co-host queen bee of NBC’s early morning Today show and the most influential woman on television, has been indentured to those tyrannical timepieces. They are set permanently to go off at 5 a.m. Says she: “I always told people that if I ever had a million dollars my dream was to stay up every night reading trashy novels and sleep until noon.”

Last week that dream became reality. In the biggest talent raid since CBS grabbed Jack Benny from NBC, ABC won Walters with an offer of $1 million a year for five years and a job that will let her sleep until, well, at least 7:30 a.m. Some time between now and next fall, Walters will join an at first sulfurously reluctant Harry Reasoner in anchoring ABC’s lagging Evening News. She will be the first woman ever to fill a regular network anchor slot, the most prestigious job in television journalism. She will also become history’s highest-paid journalist.

Hard Work. Walters, who now earns around $400,000 a year from the Today show and her own Not for Women Only syndicated talk show, will have to hustle for her million. The ABC contract calls for at least four specials and eight to twelve stints as host of the Sunday interview show Issues and Answers, in addition to service on the Evening News. That program will be expanded from 30 minutes a night to 45 when Walters comes aboard, and ABC affiliates will also expand their lead-in local news shows to 45 minutes. Yet no matter how her salary is apportioned, Walters will still outearn CBS’s Walter Cronkite, NBC’s John Chancellor and ABC’s Reasoner. Each earns about $400,000 a year. She will also be hauling in more cash than many of the megastars of the entertainment side of the medium.

That thought troubles quite a few TV news executives. “A good journalist is worth more than a baseball player or a rock star, but I’m worried about where it’s going,” says CBS News President Richard Salant. “A million dollars is a grotesque amount of money.” Frets a top NBC executive: “We’re going to have a contagion of on-camera personalities asking for more money.”

First in line may have been Harry Reasoner, who reportedly threatened to walk out rather than share the air with Walters. Reasoner, who has been ABC’S solo anchor since Howard K. Smith was sidelined to nightly commentaries five months ago, later softened his opposition, probably after ABC promised him more money. “It was my pride reacting,” Reasoner said of his original temper tantrum. “My feeling was, ‘Please, mother, I’d rather do it myself.’ But that was only temporary and irrelevant. The money is the least of my worries. I make more now than I’m worth.”

Many inside and outside the industry were afraid that as a result of the competitive bidding for Walters’ talents, the line between journalism and show business, always somewhat smudgy in television, would become even further blurred. “It makes me exceedingly uncomfortable that people can command so much money doing news,” groused NBC News President Richard Wald, after losing one of his network’s indisputable stars. “It’s a system that belongs to entertainment, not news.” Said a top CBS executive: “For 20 years we’ve struggled to have broadcast news treated on a par with print news. So when ABC pays someone that kind of money it makes us all look like Hollywood. I can just hear people saying, ‘Isn’t that typical of television?’ ”

Male Air. Barbara’s big score is also the furthest advance of the women’s movement in television. After years of second-class status, female correspondents like NBC’S Rebecca Bell and Catherine Mackin, CBS’s Lesley Stahl and Connie Chung, and ABC’s Hilary Brown are no longer being relegated to “soft” news assignments and feature stories. Still, network executives have long felt that only men can convey the air of authority that anchors need to make news credible. As Reasoner, who is called “a real chauvinist” by a female ABC colleague, puts it, “I have a suspicion that we have not yet come to a complete acceptance of equality between men and women on television.”

Such doubts do not trouble ABC News President William Sheehan and the network’s top brass. They are counting on Walters to inject a measure of prestige and cash into their sagging news operation. Among the three networks, ABC has long been known as the Triangle Shirtwaist factory—meaning sweatshop—of television journalism. ABC spends about $44 million a year on its evening news (v. about $47 million each for CBS and NBC). The network has fewer correspondents than its rivals and is thought to pay them less. In a poll of 78 television editors, critics and columnists on U.S. newspapers taken last fall by Variety, only 6% gave ABC high marks in news gathering (v. 72% for CBS and 22% for NBC).

All three networks have tossed around the idea of hiring a woman anchor, but ABC, a perennial third in the battle for audiences, has long been the most serious about it. In 1974, ABC Evening News Executive Producer Av Westin began a quiet evaluation of a number of female candidates, among them Walters, 44; Stahl, 33; Brown, 35, now stationed in London, and Liz Trotta, 39, correspondent for New York’s WNBC-TV. Then Westin resigned last fall in a row with News Chief Sheehan, and the search was suspended. But the network soon commissioned Frank Magid Associates to test viewer preferences; the firm found that 46% would like to see a woman deliver the news, 41% did not care and only 13% would prefer a man.

Meanwhile ABC suddenly surged into a lead in the ratings race over its rivals for the first time in years (TIME, March 15) and then settled into a strong second position not far behind CBS. The ABC Evening News, however, did not share in the new-found prosperity of the entertainment shows. ABC news executives, under marching orders to match the network’s entertainment-program success, tried almost everything: the set was redesigned to resemble something vaguely like a reception room in a corporate headquarters; news items were compressed and a batch of writers was brought in to turn out sprightlier copy for Reasoner. Result: Reasoner still trailed badly with 19% of the potential viewing audience, to 24% for Chancellor and 28% for Cronkite.

Last March NBC made Walters an offer to renew her contract, which expires in September, on roughly the same terms as her old one. She refused, but left the door open for a better NBC offer. While on vacation in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, she was invited to lunch in a private dining room at ABC’S West Coast headquarters in the Century City complex. Present were Sheehan, ABC Chairman Leonard Goldenson, ABC President Elton Rule and ABC Television President Fred Pierce. They sketched an offer virtually identical to the one she accepted last week. “I was surprised,” Walters recalls. “I’d read that they were looking for a woman for the Evening News, but I thought they’d offer me a spot on their morning show, opposite Today, and I would never do that.” Today was “her” show, she says, and she would never go on a program competing with it.

First Crack. Walters returned to New York and informed her NBC bosses that she had been talking to another bidder. They quickly countered with their own million-dollar package: four news specials a year, her own magazine-format show, a permanent parole from Today in six months and “participation” in the NBC Nightly News, with first crack at a co-anchor spot later. For days, Walters worried over the offers. “At NBC I’m at home, secure,” she told TIME’S Patricia Beckert. “Why would I want to go to ABC? Well, because it would be a challenge. They want to improve their news. If anything changed there because of me, you could see the results directly. But I don’t know what I want.”

Walters had planned not to make up her mind until this week, but after a particularly wakeful night at midweek, she called her agent, Lou Weiss of the William Morris Agency, and said that she would join ABC. Later that day NBC released a testy statement that it had withdrawn its offer. The network said that it objected to the “carnival hoopla,” and alleged that Walters’ agents at William Morris had demanded, among other concessions, a limousine, a hairdresser and full-time flack of her own. Walters called the NBC statement “a lie” and denied that the offer had been revoked. Said she: “I already have a limousine and a hairdresser.”

As the smoke from that acrid parting clears, ABC executives may ponder whether the diva of the dawn’s early light is worth $1 million a year to them at night. Most industry analysts seem to think she is. For one thing, ABC executives hope that her departure from NBC’S Today show will deepen that program’s recent ratings slide, to the pleasure and profit of ABC’s competing Good Morning, America. NBC may well move fast to replace Walters. Some candidates: Candice Bergen, Betty Furness. Bess Myerson and Shana Alexander.

For another, her presence on the Evening News could make it one of the most profitable news programs on television (though the networks claim to lose money on their total news operations, their accounting systems make it impossible to be certain they do). Television networks can charge advertisers higher rates if a program’s audience increases, and a single additional ratings point for the ABC Evening News could be worth as much as $2.7 million a year in extra ad revenue. That alone would mean a 170% profit on the Walters investment. Some television industry experts believe that Walters could be worth as much as two or three extra ratings points to ABC. The experts note that many people will tune in just for the novelty of seeing a woman fill what has until now been a man’s job.

Barbara Walters has been struggling to make it in the male-ruled world of television nearly all her adult life. Raised in Brookline, Mass., and Miami, she is the daughter of Nightclub Impresario Lou Walters, who made and lost several minor fortunes during Barbara’s girlhood. After Fieldston School, Sarah Lawrence College and a twelve-month marriage to Businessman Bob Katz (annulled; a second marriage ended in divorce last March), she went to work at New York’s local NBC TV affiliate, learned the trade, including film editing, and in a year rose to the rank of producer. She left the station, bounced around a number of writing and public relations jobs in and out of television and landed at the Today show as a writer in 1961. Always eager, ready and hardworking, she became an on-camera interviewer within three years and began racking up a notable series of interview coups with Mamie Eisenhower, H.R. Haldeman and Anwar Sadat. NBC belatedly canonized her in 1974 as the show’s cohost, along with Jim Hartz.

Walters has elevated the interview to a high art. “She has a relaxed, easy manner,” reports NBC News Vice President Don Meaney, who used to be in charge of Today. “She doesn’t grill her subjects, therefore she elicits more information and keeps the audience on her side.” Adds Israeli Ambassador Simcha Dinitz, who has been interviewed by her several times and is a personal friend: “She always asks the questions most Americans want to know, not just the questions on the minds of the professionals. And she doesn’t allow you to get away with a flat statement if there’s no substance to it.”

Wrong Mike. Walters is not without her detractors. Some interview subjects find her distractingly nervous, overtalkative and strident. Harassed colleagues on the Today show sometimes complain that she may not suffer from ulcers but she sure is a carrier. CBS Washington Correspondent Connie Chung dismisses Walters as “an interviewer, a talk-show hostess; she does specials, not reporting, but we actually cover stories and then go back and report them.” Members of the Washington press corps who have been with her on presidential trips report that she sometimes behaves like a star, not a reporter. She can be aloof, pushy—and ruinously overeager. When Betty Ford kicked off her shoes to dance in Peking, Walters took a microphone from a technician and dashed up to the First Lady for an interview. Trouble was, the mike and accompanying film crew belonged to CBS.

For every foe, however, there are more professional admirers and loyal friends. “She couldn’t have been nicer to me,” says Washington Post Reporter Sally Quinn, who flopped as Walters’ chief rival on the CBS Morning News in 1974. Notes Walter Cronkite, “She has shown exceptional talent in interviewing. She’s aggressive and studies her subject.” Says Author and former TV Personality Barbara Howar, “She’s worth a million dollars. I’m delighted.” Some journalists find her a warm and thoughtful acquaintance but refuse to consider her a colleague. As one put it: “What do you say about a ‘newswoman’ who sells Alpo?”

For one of television’s new rich, Walters lives a life of relatively inconspicuous consumption. She has an expensive wardrobe of Halstons and Adolfos, but owns neither real estate nor automobile (“I’m afraid to drive one”). Her roomy apartment near Carnegie Hall houses Daughter Jacqueline, 7½, for whom she shows an almost obsessive devotion, a live-in French governess and a Jamaican cook, who has a small apartment in the same building. The lady of the house often dines out, sometimes with Management Consultant John Diebold or Alan Greenspan, chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. Says she: “I tell Alan what terrible shape the economy is in.”

Walters’ own economy will be fairly inflation-proof for some time. Yet even though she has been making what most Americans would consider a handsome living for at least a decade, the world’s highest-paid journalist says she does not feel rich. “I’ve never had real financial security,” she says. “I’ve always had family obligations, and now I’m head of a household. I never asked for a million dollars. They’re paying me this because this is what I’m worth. And I’m proud I’m worth it.”

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