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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 factorymeaning sweatshopof 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.