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Reliable Sources

Chicago Newscast Throws Out the Gimmicks; Has CBS News Become a 'Survivor' Promotion Machine?

Aired July 8, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: A question of survival. Has CBS News become a promotion machine for the summer hit "Survivor"? And should a CBS anchor be hosting the new reality show "Big Brother"? We'll ask Steve Friedman, producer of "The Early Show" and Kurt Andersen of

And a Chicago station throws out the gimmicks and the happy talk. Anchor Carol Marin on her no-nonsense newscast.

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz along with Bernard Kalb.

We begin with the latest rage, reality TV.







KURTZ: It's the smash TV hit of the summer. And the media can't seem to get enough. CBS, the network that turns its eye on America has turned viewers' eyes on 16 people stranded on a Pacific Island eating rats, having love affairs, and competing to stay on and win $1 million.

The news division is doing its share to promote this runaway hit. Each time a contestant is voted off the island, that person spends the next morning under the bright lights of the CBS News "Early Show."


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Wow, that was intense.


KURTZ: With this week's debut of the latest reality TV series "Big Brother," CBS faces new ethical questions. "Early Show" news anchor Julie Chen is hosting the entertainment program once a week.

So is all of this media attention just summertime fodder for news-starved journalists? Or have CBS's standards been swept away in a tide of good ratings?

I spoke earlier with Steve Friedman, senior executive producer of CBS News' "Early Show."


KURTZ: Steve Friedman, welcome.


KURTZ: Fine, Steve. CBS has got a show on which people in bathing suits run races, kill chickens, and bad mouth each other. And people seem to love it.

But you work for the news division. What's newsworthy about this?

FRIEDMAN: Well, I mean part of what we do is talk about what people are talking about. And you can't go into a restaurant or a bar or on a bus or on a train or in a cab and not have people talk about "Survivor." So it's really caught America.

It's the summer. There's not else a lot going on. And "Survivor" has become the talkability of what we're doing.

And guess what? I've begged you to put me on to talk about Crawford (ph), our coverage with Kemp and Cuomo about the campaign. I didn't get on. But now, "Survivor," hey, here I am. So I even made RELIABLE SOURCES talking about "Survivor."

KURTZ: That's a mark of success. But if this show that everybody is talking about in every restaurant and water cooler in America happened to be on NBC or ABC, I would guess it wouldn't be getting that much air time on the "Early Show."

FRIEDMAN: Well, you know what, you'd be talking to Jeff Zucker (ph) or Shelly Ross (ph). Look, last year when ABC had the Super Bowl, they were there Thursday, Friday and Monday on their morning program. This year in Tampa they won't be there because we have the Super Bowl.

There is some of that there. But today, we're doing this. ABC did their own "Survivor" contest in Times Square on "Good Morning America."

When "Millionaire" was hot, we had to do "Millionaire." Jeff Zucker on his program, he doesn't have one on his network. He's made his own,, where we follow people getting married. So I mean...

KURTZ: Jeff Zucker being the producer of the "Today" show on NBC.

FRIEDMAN: Yeah, it is summer in the city, Howie.

KURTZ: But the Super Bowl is a real news event, albeit a sports event. This is clearly undeniably an entertaining entertainment show. So the worst thing the critics would say -- I'm sure you've heard this, Steve -- is this is a cynical attempt to boost your ratings on the "Early Show" by turning it into a promotional vehicle for the CBS entertainment division.

FRIEDMAN: Well, I would say that we do the same thing when we had "Who shot J.R.?" Our job is not to be above the news. Our job is to be there when people talk about it.

Look, it's a hit show on CBS. If I didn't take advantage of it, I should be fired for malfeasance. Everybody takes advantage of the events that they have that are going to help them.

Now nobody is writing about the struggling, failing "Early Show." They're saying, "My God, it's used this show to get a big boost." Yeah, we've had a big boost, especially in younger people, 18 to 49, the last five weeks up 40 percent from a year ago. Name another news program that can say that.

Sure we owe a lot to "Survivor." But one day with "Survivor" doesn't get you there. It gets people in the door. What we're doing is keeping them in the theater.

KURTZ: OK, I should point out it's not just the "Early Show." "48 Hours" did a program on "Survivor." CBS radio stations have gotten on the bandwagon here.

So is what we used to think of as the line between news and entertainment just kaput, blown up, nuked off the face of the earth?

FRIEDMAN: Howie, that line was over a long, long time ago. I know that you wrote about the Showtime movie with James Garner, people from newspapers to play themselves in the movies.


FRIEDMAN: How many movies have we seen people in the news divisions playing themselves, whether it be CNN or ABC or CBS? That line is long gone.

Now you can lament and say it's terrible. You can say it's over, the civilization is over. You know what, to compete you've got to compete. And we are in this to win. And we will use this show to help us win.

That doesn't mean we say it's great all the time and don't do anything else. We have people on our roundtable criticizing the show all the time.

It's not that we only do CBS shows. Hey, we've got Robert Wahl on tomorrow. We do a lot with "The Sopranos." That was a big show. You go with what's hot. You go with what helps you. And the fact is that this is helping us now, and we are happy to have it.

As far as the civilization coming to an end, all I can tell you is, Howie, I've seen a lot of CNN reporters in the movies.

KURTZ: OK, if civilization ends, I'm sure it will be live on CNN as well.

We also have another potential hit show in "Big Brother," also on CBS, debuted this week. The news reader from the "Early Show," Julie Chen, acted as the host of the debut show. And she introduced the exotic dancer and the beauty queen. And she told us that the cameras would be above the shower and above the toilet, all the stuff that goes with that.

Tell me you're not just a little bit uncomfortable with a person who is a journalist reading the news on your show sliding into this entertainment realm.

FRIEDMAN: I think that's a closer line than putting the person kicked off "Survivor" island. What we think is happening on "Big Brother" is that Julie will do the kinds of stuff that she would do on our show, interview and report on what's going on.

I think it's a little early to tell what her role is in "Big Brother" because it's just evolving. And that was the preview show last night.

Let's take a look at it three, four weeks down the road. And you will see like what she did for us this morning, interview the psychologist talking about the people there.

Again, the public is smart. They know what's news, what isn't. They know what's real, what isn't.

They look at a menu on television. And they don't go to the same restaurant all the time. They pick from column A and column B. And I'm confident when all is said and done, that will be a plus for Julie Chen, a plus for our show, and a plus for our network.

KURTZ: OK, we're running short on time, Steve. But you mentioned the plot line in the newspapers being the struggling "Early Show." "Survivor" aside, you're somebody who has taken the "Today" show twice to the top of the ratings when you were at NBC.

Why so far do you think you have difficulty selling this particular merchandise on your new "Early Show," which after all has Bryant Gumbel, a $30 million studio, and so on.

FRIEDMAN: Well, you can't reverse 45 years of failure in eight months. It does take a long time to do that.

And we're making progress. When we proposed the show, we said it would take years for us to really make a move on the other people. But we're getting a lot closer, especially when you look at the demographics.

And you know what, it is going to be a long time. Those other guys, "GMA," 25 years. "Today" show, 48 years. Those are institutions. And they do a good job. So it's hard to beat people...


FRIEDMAN: ... who have been entrenched. But we're going to do it because as I've said many times, nobody wins forever.


FRIEDMAN: And our turn will come.

KURTZ: We've got you on videotape saying that. Steve Friedman, thanks very much for joining us.



KURTZ: Coming up, Kurt Andersen, co-founder of, weighs in on the news frenzy surrounding "Survivor."


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Joining us now from New York, Kurt Andersen, co-founder of the media and entertainment Web site


Kurt, you wrote a novel "Turn of the Century" about a weird over- the-top reality show that combined news and entertainment. Now we have CBS News covering a staged desert island extravaganza with scantily clad people as if it were news. Has your fictional nightmare somehow come true?

KURT ANDERSEN, CO-FOUNDER, INSIDE.COM: Well, in fact it has. And I said to my wife the other night, "I'm glad this came out a year ago or otherwise people would think this was an entirely realistic depiction without any satirical overdrive as intended."

Yeah, it's amazing how quickly reality has caught up with my inventions of a couple of years ago.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Kurt, you heard Steve Friedman. He'd make a hell of a defense lawyer. But it seems to me what he's defending is entertainment rather than news. Under his definition, news has been drained of news. And what we are really watching as I see it is a kind of incest being practiced within the CBS News organization.

Let me be a devil's advocate for a minute. Does Steve have a point saying it has to be covered, the fact that it's a hit and people are indeed talking about it? ANDERSEN: Well, I think that's true. I think he does have a point. And as you suggest, the fact that it's all inside the same network raises some issues.

But I think the blurring that this represents between news and entertainment is not something that happened the day before yesterday. Local stations routinely use network entertainment programming as jumping off points for promoting news segments on their local news shows.

And if you look at the morning shows, these are not exactly hard news serious discussions. They are entertainment shows. The ABC program until a few years ago was indeed an entertainment program, "Good Morning America."

When you have Katie Couric or Diane Sawyer or whomever doing cooking demonstrations and the like, I think you've already -- you are not doing news in some traditional sense. And I think...

KURTZ: So you're suggesting, Kurt, excuse me, you're suggesting that by having -- by ABC sending Leonardo DiCaprio to interview Bill Clinton, by various networks hyping the Super Bowl, the Olympics, when they have the right to show those events, that this line that we like to talk about isn't blurred, it's been obliterated.

ANDERSEN: I think it has. And I think not obliterated but on the way toward obliteration I would say. And as soon as television news was obliged to operate under the same return on investment, bottom line benchmarks as entertainment, which is something that clearly has happened to a great degree over the last 10 or 20 years, then the difference between entertainment and news is going to increasingly I think be a kind of antiquated one because, as Steve Friedman said, they've got to compete. They're competing for the same audiences that are over watching a pure entertainment show.

KALB: Kurt, let me help out for just a second. Why don't they make a clean breast of it and say, "Look, ladies and gentlemen, we're really not dealing in news. We're really dealing in entertainment." We're going to reach a point where we're going to have CBS entertainment divisions brings you the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather.

Entertainment, let it be so designated. Let's abandon the use of the word news.

ANDERSEN: Well, but I think historically definitions of what's news, what's entertainment, what's high, what's low, they are fluid concepts. It doesn't concern me, frankly.

I agree with Steve Friedman. It's not the end of civilization. And it's not as though the "McNeil Lehrer Report" is suddenly putting on Yanni because of some kind of PBS synergy.

I think news people on television, many of them, are performers. So I think the rigid distinction between "this is news, this is entertainment," I don't think that's a distinction that you can make in an absolute clear way anymore.

KURTZ: Well, we have a rare consensus. It's not the end of civilization. Kurt Andersen,, thanks very much for joining us.

ANDERSEN: Thank you.

KURTZ: When we return, can you deliver the news without lots of glitz, flashy video, and silly banter? We'll talk with the anchor of a local newscast in Chicago who's trying just that. Stay with us.



There's a new kind of newscast in Chicago's 10:00 hour anchored by a woman determined to do things differently.


KURTZ (voice-over): Veteran TV anchor Carol Marin made national news when she resigned from Chicago's NBC affiliate three years ago after the station hired tabloid television's Jerry Springer as a regular commentator.

CAROL MARIN, ANCHOR, CBS NEWS 2 CHICAGO: The credibility and the validity of our newscast would be eroded if we put Jerry Springer on our set.

KURTZ: CBS News quickly signed her up as a correspondent for network broadcasts and a reporter for its Chicago affiliate WBBM. In recent months, Marin has taken over the anchor chair for a very different kind of program.


ANNOUNCER: This is the 10:00 news reported by Carol Marin.


KURTZ: The local newscast is a no-fluff, serious program without a handsome co-anchor and no happy talk.


MARIN: Begin tonight with a life or death decision. Even if we accept that political influence doesn't play, is it possible your office has too much inertia, doesn't get things done fast enough? Walk us back again to the lobbying agenda of big oil.


KURTZ: But is this hard news approach working, or is it rather boring and turning viewers off?

(END VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ: Carol Marin joins us now from Chicago.


MARIN: Hello, Howie.

KURTZ: The "Chicago Tribune Magazine" ran this headline about you, "Coming up at 10:00, an old chick, politics, and not a single water-skiing squirrel." Now I disagree with the old chick part, but squirrels aside, how is your newscast different?

MARIN: Our newscast is different because it's traditional. It's straight news. We do a lot of different things I think that aren't being done as often as they might.

We're not only doing politics and news of the day. But we're doing some religion, some dot-com, some media exploration. We're trying to be broad, diverse, but serious and straightforward.

KALB: Carol, for the last few months since the show was launched, you've been living in what I might call a kind of a journalistic dream world, the emphasis on substance over sensationalism. Yet the ratings show that after an early blip up in the ratings, you've dropped again. Is it that the mix is inaccurate to be appealing to a broader audience?

MARIN: I don't know that it's that exactly. But I think we're going to take some getting used to because we have broken out of what's been an established pattern for a while.

And I think what's also happening is this. I think some viewers of local news as it was on Channel 2 are leaving us. And the people who are coming to us are people who weren't watching news at all. They'd left entirely.

And so those are the people who are slowly coming to us. But I think they're coming. And I think this will take some time. But it's going to happen.

KALB: Quick follow up if I may, it will take some time. What sort of faith does management have in giving you that time?

MARIN: So far, I haven't seen any chinks in the armor. I think we're going to have to increase steadily and hit November well. There are certain market realities, and I understand that.

But so far, no one seems to have panicked. We've got the support that we need.

And we haven't changed course. We haven't suddenly done a water- skiing squirrel just to see if that might work.

KURTZ: Well, since you do longer stories, Carol, and live interviews, and that would mean obviously fewer stories, what news are you avoiding? For example, one of your first nights, one of the rival stations in Chicago led the newscast with a story about a high school bomb scare. You gave it 16 seconds.

MARIN: We gave it 16 seconds because there was a small malatov cocktail discovered. Nobody was threatened. It was a problem, but not a major problem.

We're not doing burning warehouses that were empty in which no one was hurt and sticking a reporter out there live 10 hours later to say, "Boy, look at the flames we saw earlier today." We're doing news. We're doing news of the day. But we're picking and choosing the things that seem to have some meaning and something we can say something about.

KURTZ: Why are you devoting less time to sports and weather? And why are you also avoiding what are called in the business "teases," as we do on this show -- "coming up, a heck of a story about such and such"?

MARIN: Part of the problem with teases is you can go just nuts with teases. And by the time you get to the story, it's not any longer than the tease was. And you haven't told people any more than the tease contains.

When it comes to sports and weather, on big weather days and big sports days, we not only go longer, but we put those stories higher and sometimes we hit sports twice in a newscast. But on days when it's pretty perfunctory, when the Cubs and the Sox aren't in town, when they aren't playing, we don't spend a lot of time.

KALB: Carol, when you dig around and thumb for the reasons as to why the audience has not been expanding, is it possible that your kind of audience needs a Cold War to stay riveted to your show? That is to say are you a victim as it were of the economic prosperity and a lack of nuclear anxiety in the world?

MARIN: I don't know. I don't think so. I think people are still hunting for sources of news. But this is what I also think, Bernie. I think we've lost some trust.

I think we've squandered some journalistic equity along the way. And it's going to take a while to get that back.

KALB: But you're trying to restore it, Carol.

MARIN: Yeah, I am. And the people I work with are.

But the 10:00 news or the 11:00 on the east coast is no longer appointment viewing anywhere in the country. And part of what we have to do is tell people something meaningful enough, tell them stories they don't know how to ask for in a consultant survey and haven't been all over the place all day long, and give them some reason to watch us. That's our job.

KURTZ: Carol, only two very quick questions as we're running short on time. Did anybody at CBS 2 Chicago say, "Carol, this is a great idea. But we really could use a male co-anchor."

MARIN: Not a word on it.

KURTZ: OK, I guess you've got them trained. And finally, what if the CBS network folks came to you and said, "You know, we've got this really great summer hit called "Survivor," would you like to interview a couple of the contestants on your newscast?"

MARIN: Not one person has asked me that question, Howie. And they know the answer.

KURTZ: But you are avoiding the sort of tie-in stories that relate to network programming?

MARIN: You bet. My idea of news hell -- and I've said this a million times -- is talking to the real guy behind tonight's movie. If there is a genuine news story there and I can be convinced of it, then we'll talk about it. But I seldom if ever see genuine stories in those things.

KURTZ: Carol Marin, out of news hell, thanks very much for joining us.

MARIN: Thank you.

KURTZ: And now here comes the tease. When we return, Bernie's "Back Page."


KURTZ: Time now for the "Back Page" -- Bernie.

KALB: Well, there's a three-way summit set to open at Camp David on Tuesday. Everybody knows that. But there's something else that will be taking place. And that's the great game played out between the diplomats and the journalists.

Now this summit like all summits -- remember Geneva '85, Beijing '72, or all the others -- this summit too will be wrapped in official secrecy, wrapped in a policy of no leaks. But when the two sides begin heavy bargaining behind closed doors, one side wins, one side loses.

Who makes the bigger compromise? And those collisions in a hothouse environment can produce leaks, highly partisan, self-serving.

But the point is, it is rarely a particular act of journalistic genius that produces the leak. Rather, it is the diplomat who decides who is the chosen one, the chosen journalist to leak to.

And that depends on a variety of factors, the sympathies and influence of the journalist, how big an audience he or she reaches, et cetera. In short, it's a great game played out between diplomats and journalists behind the summit photo ops that are offered to the public.

So will that great game produce a big journalistic exclusive before this summit winds up? Keep tuned. KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks.

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next time for another critical look at the media.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next. Mark Shields has a preview.

MARK SHIELDS, HOST, "CAPITAL GANG": Howie, conservative pundit Bill Kristol joins us to examine last night's missile test failure. We'll talk about picking a vice president, Lazio versus Hillary, and much more right here next on CNN.



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