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The star system, of course, is hardly a new phenomenon in TV news: Murrow, Walter Cronkite, and Huntley and Brinkley were certainly as popular as any of % the current luminaries. But salaries and network bidding wars entered a new phase in 1976, when Arledge lured Walters away from NBC for $1 million a year. The rise of superagents like Richard Leibner (who represents Sawyer, Rather, Shriver and Mike Wallace, among other network news stars) has brought about an escalation of salaries and an increase in the clout these personalities wield.
Today, as the networks fight to retain their dwindling audiences, prime-time news programming is becoming more desirable because it costs only about half as much to produce as entertainment fare. And to compete in the glitzy arena of The Cosby Show and Dallas, stars are a must. Other entertainment elements are creeping into these shows as well. On Prime Time Live, Sawyer and Donaldson will be joined by an unusual (for a news show) featured player: a live studio audience. Both Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow and the revamped West 57th will feature dramatized "re-creations" of events, a dubious enterprise that blurs the line between news and entertainment. (Even ABC's World News Tonight tried the technique two weeks ago, with mock-documentary footage ostensibly showing suspected spy Felix Bloch handing a briefcase to a Soviet agent. Anchor Peter Jennings last week apologized on the air that the footage had not been clearly labeled as a simulation.)
On the evening newscasts, too, stars are being hyped more than ever. Facing growing competition for the news viewer -- from cable outlets like CNN, aggressive local stations and syndicated shows -- the networks are trying to stress what makes them distinctive: namely, their anchors. That's why Rather, Jennings and Tom Brokaw can be seen jetting off to Eastern Europe or China whenever the President (or a Soviet leader) hops an airplane. Network executives gamely defend such trips on journalistic grounds, but they are primarily promotional gimmicks meant to showcase the network's resident Bigfoot. "We're almost defining news in such a way as to say something's not important unless an anchor is there," says Everette Dennis, executive director of the Gannett Center for Media Studies. "That's regrettable. Sometimes the specialists on a particular subject ought to be the ones dominating the coverage, not the anchors, who are by definition generalists."
News personalities, of course, bring special skills to their jobs that are not always appreciated. They must be able not only to report the news but to communicate it effectively. An appealing on-camera demeanor is no less important than a writer's prose style or a magazine's layout. "You have to be a special combination of person to be the focal point of a successful show," says NBC News president Michael Gartner, a former newspaper editor. "You have to be a good journalist, and you have to be able to deliver the message -- which a print person doesn't have to do -- in person, in somebody's house."