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Sam Donaldson
112th Landon Lecture
November 21, 1997


The State of Television Today


I'm delighted to be here for at least three reasons. First reason, it is the Landon Lecture Series. Now, I'm a political reporter and I have been for 40 years. I did not ever meet Alf Landon, but of course I know a great deal about him. But I have met his daughter, Nancy Kassebaum, and I think she's terrific as a person and as a public servant. I admire Senator Kassebaum tremendously.

Bob Strauss, the Democratic power broker in Washington a few months ago threw a dinner upon the occasion of the nuptials with Howard Baker, another member of the Senate in years past, and someone else I admire, and he was kind enough to send me an invitation, and it said Wednesday night. Well, I work on Wednesday night, but I fired off a letter and l said, "Bob, I'm going to have the lovely Diane Sawyer anchor alone tonight -- or next Wednesday. I'm going to be there, nothing will keep me and Jan away."

We went, it was a lovely evening. The next morning I got up and discovered that we had one of the highest ratings in the history of Prime Time Live. I'll never miss a Wednesday night for Nancy or anyone else again.

Second reason I'm delighted to be here is because of Jon Wefald. We met 25 years ago. Now, he was just a pup in those days. I was covering Hubert Humphrey the great, and I mean that, and John, as you probably know, was the Secretary of Agriculture for the great state of Minnesota and he was, of course, a Humphrey fan and someone helping out in the campaign.

I can see Hubert as if he were still standing here today, popping his cuff-links saying how pleased -- "I'm pleased as punch to be here." And we were trading war stories earlier about this, and I'm not going to take up your time or John's with them, but if you want to hear them, just ask President Wefald. And I'll just give you a clue, say, "Mr. President, tell us about the day you had to borrow a pair of Hubert Humphrey's pants." Hope I got you in a lot of trouble there, Jon.

The third reason I'm delighted to be here is I get to talk about anything I want to talk about, the story of my life. No, no, no, not that. And, you know, I could talk about Bill Clinton, I could talk about Paula Jones -- that's the same thing. I could talk about -- you know, I could talk about Marv Albert.

But instead, as my little silly remarks suggest, I'm going to talk about the state of television news today. Now everybody else is doing it. I mean, Dan is doing it, and Ted Koppel, my great buddy, is doing it, and everybody is doing it, and most of them are denouncing us.

Well, I think that's a little shortsighted, I mean, for me to get up and tell you what a bunch of bums we are doesn't suggest to me the way to get you to watch television news. So I'm going to do something a little different, and I know something about it, I've been in it for 40 years.

Although I am just marginally smart enough to know that I may not always be right. I'm reminded of a couple of quick stories, the ancient king who said to one of his aides, "I want you to bring me something which is true now, always. Tell me what is always going to be true or it's your head." And the poor guy thought he finally saved his head by saying, "This phrase, Your Majesty. And this too shall pass."

But the one I really like is Conrad Hilton, who after 50 years, the late hotel magnate, being in the hotel business, once said, "You know, the only thing I think I really know that's true about this business is that it's better to put the shower curtain on the inside of the tub than the outside of the tub."

So with that as a buildup, here I go. Now, when I talk to journalism students I often sit down with them and I say, "All right, now do you want to talk about the news and the news business the way we want it to be, the way we'd like it to be, the way in theory it ought to be, or do you want to talk about the real world?"

Oh, they're all smart, a lot smarter than I was when I went to college I crammed for an exam the night before, I drank a lot of beer, I know you don't do that today. You're much smarter. But they're all smart and they say, "We want to talk about the real world ." So I usually start out, as I will today, by saying in the real world television news is a business.

We are in business. We are in business to make money. Now, that comes as a shock to them, because I'm supposed to say in the best traditions of the great people of our business, Edward R. Murrow and others, that we are only there to bring people information that they need to use in their daily lives and in the lives of the republic and to do it as accurately as we can and without any personal motive or agenda. Now, that is, of course, what we think we're trying to do, but we're doing it within a business.

I like the profit motive. Excuse me, I don't want the government to subsidize radio and television.

To an extent it does two organizations, PBS, you watch it, it's a very good network. and National Public Radio, where my other lovely sidekick, the Cokester, Cokie Roberts, holds forth many mornings. And that's terrific. Ah, the Cokester. I am very lucky to work with her. I like her, I think she's smart, I think she's witty and all of that and I call her the Cokester.

And the other day we were on the Conan O'Brien show, and you'll immediately say "What is a serious journalist doing on the Conan O'Brien -" we're trying to build the house, ladies and gentlemen, I'll come to that in a moment. And they said, "Why do you call her the Cokester?" And I said. "Well, you know, it has nothing to do with shooting a line."

And I was shocked at my own knowledge of that subject. I've never shot a line in my life, may I say, and I'm not even running for public office, didn't inhale or any of that good stuff. I think she's terrific.

We do this on Sunday morning. George Will, of course, is the other regular there. I used to say of George Will, who I know has addressed this distinguished assemblage, that he was the smartest man I know in this business, until one day someone said they got up to the audience, "We'll take questions in a few moments," and said, "Well, if he's so smart, how come you always disagree with him?" So I just say he's tough and a good guy, and we do all of that on a Sunday morning.

But in the real world, those of us who do that or the evening news, or news specials, or special events when some horrible catastrophe has occurred, or when there's a Gulf War, we are in business. It wasn't always that way.

In the early days of television -- and, in fact, I'm so long in the -- when I got into this business, there were, of course, only three networks, ABC, CBS or NBC, and the founders were still alive, the Sarnoffs, Bill Paley for CBS, Leonard Goldenson, who is still alive today, retired ABC. And they were rolling in money. We had 98 percent of the television audience in this country, a few local stations had the other 2 percent, and you all had to watch us, and they made money. It was a machine. You just printed it in the entertainment portion of the network. So the news departments didn't have to make money and they didn't. They were loss leaders.

Mr. Paley would go down to Washington and would be complimented by the members of the United States Senate and the President himself on "Fine public service, Mr. Paley. We saw that news broadcast, Harvest of Shame you did," and he would glow. And the news department was a lot -- did not have big audiences.

I mentioned Harvest of Shame. It's a great documentary in the early '60s that Edward R. Murrow did for the first time in a national sense, exposing the plight of migrant workers. Very few people watched, but we gave it every award in the book. It deserved it, and it didn't matter that very few people watched. Influential people watched and laws were changed.

My personal hero, Howard K. Smith, a name you probably don't know, because he's been retired since 1978, did an hour-long documentary. "Who Speaks for Birmingham." For the first time this country saw Bull Conner the police commissioner, with dogs and the water hoses against other Americans, their skin was black, of course. And it was a shock and it helped propel the momentum that changed the jury laws of the south. Very few people watched, didn't matter, didn't have to make money.

The news departments were free to say to all of you and to the vast audience, 98 percent of which we had, "We'd like you to watch our programming. We think it's important in the news sense, and you're certainly welcome, but if you don't want to, it's okay with us, hey, fine, go, go, read the Inquirer, do whatever you want to do, I don't care."

That persisted through this great halcyon decade of the '60s, halcyon in the sense of the news business. You know, I got to thinking the news business was, you know, this terrible civil rights struggle, terrible assassinations, Vietnam, putting a man on the moon, I thought every day there would be a new headline of that type.

We went into the '70s and it was still the same way. In 1973 there were hearings on Capitol Hill in the Senate, the so-called Watergate Committee that began the investigation of Richard M. Nixon, which eventually, as you know, led to Mr. Nixon leaving town one step ahead of the sheriff. And people were interested in those hearings that Sam Ervin, the senator from North Carolina held that summer.

And lots of people watched, because the networks covered it gavel to gavel, but after the first week realized they were losing money, so every third day a different network would cover it. So every third day if you wanted to watch the Watergate hearings, you had to watch me. You didn't have a choice. Was no choice. You had to watch me, whether you liked me or not if you wanted to watch it on television. Because in those days, what, there was no C-Span, there was CNN, there was no cable, and if you said, "Well, I'm at home and I think I'll watch a movie," no, you won't. There was no VCR. Turn on the television set, me or the guy on NBC or the guy on CBS, that was it.

And then something happened. His name was Ted Turner, and he put his Super Station on satellite and then a bunch of people, some guy named John Malone -- sounds like a breakfast food, right started these cable companies. And instead of 98 percent of the audience, the television networks had 89 percent. Still massive.

And then a couple years later, 82 percent, still very good. Then we had 75 percent and about that time the bosses, all of them still alive, except the senior Sarnoff, came to the news departments and said, "Boys --" because we were still making the horrible transition to discover that women should be let into the business. You know, because at first we didn't do that. We finally got a little sense. "Boys, guess what, you have to make the money now. Sorry, got to make the money, bottom line, everybody's gotta do it, give at the office. We're not making all this money that we used to anymore. Look at these various channels that have sprung up. So let's see the cash."

Well, it was quite a start to us. How are we going to make the money? Well, you make the money by, you know, increasing the size of the audience, because we were selling commercials all along, it just wasn't paying all the expenses. Well, we have to get a bigger audience.

Well, we already had the news audience, people like everyone here in this auditorium, you watch the news. Maybe not every day, but you care about what goes on the world. Now, your presence here for me may not demonstrate that, but for most lecturers it would. So we had you, but you were not enough, because there are three great audiences for watching the tube, and in the twinkling of an eye it's going to be that computer screen, and who knows after that.

There's you, the news audience. You're very important to this country, you're very influential, you really drive the country at a local level and a national level, but you are smaller compared to the second audience.

These are people who are very good people, they're smart people, my mythical bus driver, maybe here in Manhattan or some place. The guy goes to work every day, he does a good job, very essential to the community, he makes a living for his family, he goes to PTA on Thursday night, maybe he plays a little golf on the public course on Saturday if he can. He comes home though after work and he sits down on the sofa and he wants to be entertained. Does he want to sit there and watch the hole in the ozone layer? No. He has his beer and he doesn't normally watch news programs. But that's a big audience.

So if I look around, say I got to make some money, I have to increase the audience, I'm suddenly saying, "Hey, I can't take the attitude if you want to watch, fine, if you don't want to watch, it's all right with me. I got to see what this bus driver would like to watch, or at least I've got to see how I can interest him in what I think he ought to watch."

And then there's a third audience. Fortunately, I don't think it's that big, but it's sizeable, and these are people who believe that there are three-headed cows, and that Elvis was seen in a Sheboygan supermarket last Wednesday. They really do.

And they're there. We never paid any attention to them, and we knew they would never watch us and we didn't care. And we kind of looked down our nose at them anyway, being the elite, you know, particularly those of us who -- well, I'm from New Mexico and -- but anyway, I'm now part of the inside the Beltway elites back in Washington, but all of a sudden we even began to sort of say, "Hi, how are you?" to the three-headed cows, because we have to increase the audience.

Still it wasn't awful, it wasn't awful, there was just a few channels, and still people wanted to hear the news, because there was a man named Brezhnev, and he had nuclear missiles pointed at Kansas, the Soviet leader, and lots of news was happening. Into the '80s news was happening.

But finally by the time the '90s got here the jig was up. On a good night in the summer now the three commercial television networks have less than 50 percent of the audience. Still the biggest audience, but less than 50 percent.

Let me show you something. You can't see it. Take my word for it, right? I'm an honest guy. These are the listings of the channels available today in New York City. There are 87 of them, not 3 networks, 87. 17 of them are really news channels in one direct form or another.

And so you're still out there but now you don't have to watch me, you can watch Jim Lehrer, a terrific guy, with the News Hour on PBS. You can watch the History Channel with Roger Mudd and some great stuff. You can watch A & E, as you are, six of you are here going to watch the History Channel, and 40 of you are going to watch the News Hour with Jim Lehrer, and 6 are going to watch A & E, and a few will still watch me, too few now.

Too few for any of us to do business. Too few for these inflated salaries that some -- can you imagine the salary some of those people make in television? "I'm not gonna give it back, let me tell you, I've got mortgages up to here." Too few. Too few for the stockholders.

So now I've got to go to the second audience. I appreciate my colleagues who at this point stop and say, "No, do the responsible job that Edward R. Murrow did. Do the job that does not pulverize our business, do the job that brings Americans important stories. Yes, there's no Brezhnev, yes, there's no Soviet Union, yes, Mr. Mandella is not being let out of jail again today. Yes, California has not sunk into the ocean with the San Andreas Fault hot behind today, but you do the news.

Let's reform the social security system, and I want that on every night. And let's put the hole in the Ozone layer, because it will kill us all, you understand, if we don't get hold of this." And I agree that that's important, but, my friends, you can talk that way if you want, and I'm for you, in my heart I think you're exactly right, but we're going out of business, and I don't think that's necessary.

So what's my solution, that we just go right down the stream, we get right down there with the National Inquirer, I mean we're going to grovel in there with all those wonderful people I mentioned, save one, who is the President of the United States, an honorable man.

No. What we've got to try to do is figure out a way to interest that second audience again. Let the three-headed cow people go. If they want to come, fine, I believe in democracy and the 1st Amendment, but I don't think we can go that far. But we've got to get that bus driver watching us on a regular basis

And the way I think we do it is -- you can't do it by saying, '"You, you there in the red dress, this is important to you, very important, so therefore you must watch." Or "You, sir, in order to exercise your franchise as a citizen in this country and vote intelligently, you need to know these things."

Are you kidding? In a pig's eye. You're going to watch ESPN, that's where I would be. Martha Stewart's got a new program on, that's where I would be. Because again, no Soviet missiles are there, I mean, you understand, it's not life and death, and for me to tell you that this is important is not the way to get anyone to watch.

Now, I have to come to you and somehow say "Hole in the ozone layer, fascinating, interesting, dynamic, dramatic, maybe even slightly titillating. I mean, you know. Here, we did this.

I use that example. I'm proud of Prime Time Live. Three or four years ago one of our great correspondents, John Quinones, went down to a city in Chile, in southern Chile, that is right beneath one of these contracting expanding holes in the ozone layer, and he didn't start by saying "Tonight are three distinguished scientists who will explain to us the degradation of ozone and its consequences," he started with a mother crying, holding her infant who had an unexplained disease. There was a drama there. I want the bus driver to say, "Maude, come on here, look at this, look at this poor woman."

Now, while he's looking we'll just slip him a little information about what causes the hole in the ozone.

Then we're going to show him the sheep with the unexplained blindness, and then we do some other fancy footwork.

There is no requirement, in my view, to be boring in order to be responsible. You can be irresponsible and be boring or you can be irresponsible and be non-boring, but you cannot automatically equate the two. I think what we have to do in television news, because it will never go back to 98 percent or 88 percent or 76 percent, you all will stay run off, because in the twinkling of an eye in New York, instead of 87 channels it will be 187, it's just going to get worse, and from the standpoint of news I can't predict.

Maybe tomorrow there will be horrible catastrophe or something terrible important to your lives, you'll say, "I'm going have to watch this again. It didn't matter, but now I have to." But we can't count on that.

I would love to have good times. Hey, let's not have a recession, let's not have a war, it's okay with me. Oh, sure, my ratings will benefit if it does, but I'm just, again, marginally smart enough to know that that's not way to conduct one's self in life.

So what we have to do is say, "These are things that will interest you. These are things that you're going to want to watch, because we're going to present the story, the news story, if you will, in such an interesting fashion that you're going to feel -- " I'm going to use a terrible word in our business "that you're being entertained."

What's wrong with being entertained, as long as I am accurate, as long as I am not incomplete, as long as I am objective, in other words, and as long as I'm talking about something that does matter, as opposed to something that doesn't matter, why shouldn't I entertain you? I'm not much of a stand-up comic, but hey, I can learn.

I was interviewing Warren Buffet the other day, not for television, but in Phoenix before the managers of the Disney company, and I asked him a simple question. I said, "How does it feel to be rich?" "Well," he said -- you know, he's an old soft shoe that's worth $37 billion, but he said, "I actually live on $100,000 a year."

And I'm thinking to myself, "Hey, to most Americans that qualifies." He said, I live in the same house, frame house, I lived in Omaha, you know, all my life and take public transportation frequently, and all of that." And he said, "You know, I make money because I buy into businesses that I think are well run and that are in the growth field." "And," he said, "I have a lot of managers who are in their high seventies, I have one guy who's 82, because, he says, "You cannot teach a new dog old tricks." Hey, here's an old dog that you can teach some new tricks.

So when it comes to television news, I guess what I'm saying to you in a very long-winded way, is that there are conditions beyond which we have not had a lot of control, which have reduced us in our size, in our scope, in our ability to bring information to people, and us, meaning a single news organization. And in the absence of major, horrible or important stories, we're not going to come on the air and say "Good evening, there's no news today, I'm taking the rest of the day off." So we're going to say good evening, and we're going to try to bring something to you. But our challenge is to bring it to you in such an interesting way, that while we might not wean you from ER or Seinfeld, we'll certainly do Home Improvement in, I mean, we'll present the news so that you'll want to watch it. And that's our only salvation, I think, as news organizations at the network level.


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