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Television: CBS Cliffhanger

4 minute read

As evening news time approached, star-struck CBS executives in New York, Washington and Los Angeles began clearing their throats and straightening their ties. Many of them had already been pressed into service behind the cameras because of a strike against CBS by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents cameramen, audio and lighting men and other technicians. But now the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists had ordered its members—who include newsmen and the casts of live programs such as soap operas—to honor the IBEW picket lines at CBS broadcast sites. Such stellar AFTRA members as Newsmen Roger Mudd, Dan Rather and Eric Sevareid had pledged “reluctant” compliance. Would lightning strike? Would a faceless CBS management man rocket to instant fame as substitute anchorman, as did the unsung Arnold Zenker, then manager of the CBS news programming, during the AFTRA strike in 1967?

Not yet. An hour before the deadline, the New York State Supreme Court issued a preliminary injunction against the AFTRA boycott. The court ruled that since many top CBS newsmen and performers had personal as well as union contracts with the network, AFTRA’S order would expose them to contract-violation charges. AFTRA appealed the ruling but allowed its members—including those without personal contracts—to continue working. So the same familiar faces read the news (minus Walter Cronkite, recuperating from minor throat surgery); the same dulcet tones analyzed Thanksgiving and Sunday pro football games.

Despite the reprieve, the strike by the 1,200-member IBEW has already brought the network an eyeful of trouble. Since the Oct. 31 expiration of the old contract and the walkout on Nov. 3, CBS claims it has suffered $250,000 in equipment damage, presumably inflicted by strikers bent on sabotage; CBS election night coverage was restricted to the New York studio and a reduced number of remote pickups (TIME, Nov. 20). Insiders say that CBS-owned local stations have already lost thousands of dollars because of commercials missed or botched by inexperienced management and supervisory personnel.

The crucial dispute between IBEW and CBS is not so much wages and fringe benefits as an issue relatively new to TV labor negotiations: automation. Although CBS claims that no jobs are in jeopardy, union leaders contend that a number of electronic breakthroughs have encouraged CBS to reduce IBEW jurisdiction over new equipment. The Telestrator, for example, transforms freehand drawings into TV images, thus enabling news, weather and sports broadcasters to supplement existing graphics with instant doodles of their own. IBEW is willing to allow freehand lettering by performers with artistic ability but not by amateurs; CBS wants to allow newsmen to wield a Telestrator pen on camera.

Another bone of contention is a device called the CMX 600, which is still in the development stage. With it, producers of future programs will be able to edit videotape by simply punching instructions into the machine. CBS is willing to let IBEW technicians control the CMX 600 for editing news and documentary shows, but it wants producers and directors of entertainment programs to be free to edit without the aid of union middlemen. The IBEW is also demanding complete control of the Vidifont, a machine that flashes block letters on the TV screen through the operation of a typewriter keyboard.

Arthur Korff, IBEW’S New York business manager, accused CBS of “collusion” with the other networks to “break the back of the union hold on the television and radio industry.” Replied James F. Sirmons, CBS vice president for personnel and labor relations: “We are certainly not a stalking horse for the industry. We have what we believe are very specific problems.” Among those problems was the renewed threat of AFTRA participation in the strike following a new court hearing this week. If AFTRA performers do walk out, CBS will be faced with a dwindling bank of taped episodes in many prime time series. Once those run out, advertising revenues would plunge sharply.

Whatever happens, Arnold Zenker will not be available as a substitute newsman. His stint on CBS during the 1967 strike propelled him into the performing ranks as host of two local talk shows in Boston; an AFTRA member himself now, Zenker would have to honor the IBEW picket line.

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