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And yet the question nags: Is Sawyer really worth it? Indeed, are any of TV's high-profile news stars worth the money they are paid, the power bestowed upon them, the fuss made over them? At least a dozen network-news personalities currently earn more than a million dollars a year and vie for a few high-visibility showcases. Traditionally, these slots were limited to the morning and evening newscasts, but they are spreading into prime time as well. Along with Sawyer's program, this week will see the debut of another magazine show, NBC's Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow. Its hosts: Mary Alice Williams, a former CNN anchor hired by NBC to much fanfare in March; Chuck Scarborough, a popular local anchorman for New York City's WNBC-TV; and Maria Shriver, a Kennedy. CBS, meanwhile, is in the process of revamping its four-year-old magazine show West 57th around its newest star anchor, Chung.
In the commerce of TV news, these personalities probably earn their pay. Stars draw viewers, and that means higher ratings and higher ad revenue for the network. TV's top-rated magazine show, 60 Minutes, earns an estimated $40 million a year for CBS; 20/20 brings in $15 million to $20 million annually for ABC. In a survey conducted for TIME by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman, 52% of TV viewers polled said they consider the anchor "very important" in choosing which network newscast to watch, though only 41% feel that anchors deserve to be paid a million dollars.
The crucial question, however, is not whether news stars deserve the money but whether they deserve the stature. Although most are competent reporters, they have reached their positions largely because of qualities that have little to do with journalism: the way they look, the tone of their voices, their on-camera charm. Yet they have influence that betokens great wisdom and judgment. They are the people America listens to, relies on, trusts. The major events of the day are filtered through their eyes and ears. News becomes bigger news simply because they are present -- in Paris for a presidential visit or Tiananmen Square for a nation's aborted experiment with democracy. The danger is that as stars become more and more important in the high-stakes world of TV journalism, they are overwhelming the news they purport to report.
Sawyer, more than any of her colleagues, embodies all the contradictions of TV news: that uneasy mix of journalism and show business, reporting and acting, substance and style. Her experience as a reporter, while not negligible, is on the slender side. Sawyer came to network news rather late, at 32, after spending nearly eight years as an aide to President (and then ex- President) Richard Nixon. As a correspondent, she won respect for her doggedness and intelligence, but she was helped by some shrewd career moves and smart packaging. At 60 Minutes, for instance, she benefited from a corps of the best producers in TV news; still, according to insiders, she had difficulty with the format and was less productive than the show's other correspondents. "She's a monumental talent," says executive producer Don Hewitt. "But her coming to the broadcast didn't do that much for us. And her leaving has not even remotely crippled 60 Minutes." (She will be replaced this fall by Meredith Vieira and Steve Kroft, formerly of West 57th.)