Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Paging Arnold Zenker

The man who would be Walter; Arnold Zenker, the impromptu CBS anchor of 1967, in a recent photo from his company's website.

Just when her ratings were rising a bit, Katie Couric is now facing a new challenge. But don't worry, CBS; we've got a solution--and it won't cost you $15 million. More on that in a moment.

First, the day's top story: Roughly 80% of the writers, producers and editors at CBS News--including much of the staff responsible for the CBS Evening News--have authorized a strike, after working without a new contract for more than two years. The CBS employees are part of the Writer's Guild, which represents more than 500 news division personnel in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

That means the Perky One won't have that usual team that selects and writes the stories she reads on the Evening News, or produces the various video "packages" that are an integral part of her broadcast. That's one of the dirty little secrets of broadcast news; while anchors at the network and local levels insist they are journalists, most do little reporting, and rely on producers and writers to select the stories and prepare the broadcast.

After three decades in TV news, we assume that Ms. Couric is capable of pounding out a couple of items for her nightly broadcast. Of course, we could be wrong. Couric's CBS blog, we learned a few months ago, features video "essays" that are actually written by network producers, and voiced by the anchor. That system led to a plagiarism scandal, after it was discovered that one of the essays had been lifted from The Wall Street Journal. The offending producer--or perhaps we should say stenographer--was fired.

While it might be interesting to watch Couric read a few stories she actually wrote, we're guessing that the CBS anchor won't cross the picket line. She has more than enough money to weather a long strike and besides, why antagonize key staffers who will return to the newsroom once the matter is settled.

On the other hand, honoring the picket lines could mean the Couric will surrender her recent ratings gains. With CBS (and the star anchor) under pressure to show something for her massive annual salary, Ms. Couric she may elect to stay on the job, and avoid another ratings slide.

It's happened before. Forty years ago, another broadcast union, the American Federation of Televison and Radio Artists (AFTRA) authorized a strike that kept most of the anchors off the network news programs. One exception was NBC legend Chet Huntley--then in a ratings struggle with CBS. Mr Huntley refused to honor the picket line, claiming that AFTRA is "singers, actors, jugglers, announcers, entertainers and comedians whose problems have no relation to ours." His on-air partner, David Brinkley, supported the strike, as did Walter Cronkite at CBS.

As members of the Writer's Guild at CBS News head for the picket lines, they would be advised to remember that the show went on back in 1967, even without union talent. Executives and managers were pressed into service and the broadcasts continued. There were more than a few bloopers, but viewers (and listeners) still tuned in.

This time, it's a different scenario. Viewership for the broadcast network's evening news programs is a fraction of what it was 20 years ago, and amateur hour broadcasts--without star anchors--may only accelerate audience defection to cable and the internet. In a rather ironic twist, former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw recently told an interviewer that the print editions of major newspapers (specifically the Washington Post) will be gone within 10 years. He didn't offer a life expectancy for his own network's Nightly News, but as the audience continues to erode, its days are likely numbered, too. Against that backdrop, history may record the CBS strike as the network news equivalent of backing up the Titanic, for another run at the iceberg.

Personally, we welcome the strike at the one-time Tiffany Network. With the Evening News (potentially) in the hands of management "scabs" and other non-union types, perhaps we won't get the usual dose of unvarnished liberalism that's been the hallmark of CBS News since the days of Uncle Walter. Besides, it's bound to be a hoot if someone from the executive suite winds up in the anchor chair.

When Walter Cronkite (and many of his colleagues) refused to cross the picket line in 1967, CBS turned to Arnold Zenker to read the news. Mr. Zenker, a 28-year-old graduate of the University of Pennsylvania law school, had been working as Manager of News Programming at CBS. While no one confused Zenker for The Most Trusted Man in America, he did a credible job, and went on to host TV and radio shows in Boston and Baltimore. Today, he runs a successful media consulting firm.

At age 69, Mr. Zenker clearly has the gravitas for the CBS anchor chair, assuming that Ms. Perky won't cross the picket line. If he's been off the job for 40 years, no worry. It's only television news.

Bring on the strike. And bring back Arnold.


ADDENDUM: Bob Greene looks back at Mr. Zenker's brief career as a CBS anchor in this 2006 op-ed piece from The New York Times. It was published on September 4th of last year--the day of Katie Couric's debut at CBS.

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