Sawyer's ascent shows TV news to be star-driven


She may not be television's best anchor, reporter or interviewer, but Diane Sawyer proved beyond a doubt last week that she is the most sought-after star in all of network news.

Rupert Murdoch wanted her to launch a news division for Fox. CBS promised her a daily half-hour program, to follow the evening news. NBC offered to rip up its prime-time lineup so she could anchor a 10 p.m. news magazine program four nights a week.

In the end, Ms. Sawyer disappointed them all. She chose to remain at ABC News after the network agreed to double her salary, to an estimated $5 million to $7 million a year, and to give her unprecedented prime-time exposure. Ms. Sawyer will remain co-anchor of "PrimeTime Live" on Thursdays, share anchor duties on a new program called "Turning Point" and become TC contributor to "Day One" on Mondays.

That all the networks made such extravagant offers to Ms. Sawyer demonstrates that network news is today, more than ever, a business driven by stars. The story behind the negotiations also provides insight into Ms. Sawyer, 48, who despite her success always hungers for more -- more air time, more opportunities and more money.

"She is the kind of person who really wants a new challenge, something really different, to see what her next level of accomplishment can be," says an ABC executive, who doesn't want to be named. Ms. Sawyer's willingness to hear offers from all the networks was driven by "this restlessness and desire to do something different and to prove herself."

"It's bred into her," says another ABC colleague. "She always wants to climb a new Mount Everest."

It was Ms. Sawyer's near-boundless ambition that led her to leave CBS News and "60 Minutes" in 1989 to join ABC, where news division president Roone Arledge was abandoning its gimmicky live format.

Ms. Sawyer has handled many of the show's high-profile interviews and trademark hidden-camera investigations. She became known as a gifted storyteller, a tireless worker who would go anywhere for a good story and a perfectionist who slaved endlessly over the details of her pieces.

Rupert Murdoch personally made the pitch for Fox, which wanted to put Ms. Sawyer in a magazine show to follow Fox's new NFL Sunday afternoon football package. To Mr. Murdoch, Ms. Sawyer was like his newly acquired football commentator John Madden -- an instantly recognizable star who would bring immediate credibility. Fox also offered to pay her as much as Mr. Madden, perhaps $7 million to $10 million a year.

CBS entered the fray by proposing to create for Ms. Sawyer a half-hour show, not unlike "Nightline," that would be syndicated to TV stations for broadcast between 7 and 8 p.m., opposite game shows and tabloid fare. Ms. Sawyer would get not only a hefty salary but also a share of the profits.

Ms. Sawyer considered Fox and CBS but saw the risks as too great. She was most intrigued by NBC's idea of stripping a news program across the week at 10 p.m., making her lead anchor and using the anchors and correspondents of the NBC magazines "Now" and "Dateline NBC" as supporting players.

"This was going to be a division-wide effort," says Bill Wheatley, vice president of NBC News. "Think about the possibilities when you have a continuing, hourlong program over four nights." The new program could have combined magazine pieces with live interviews, in-depth reporting on big stories, documentary-style programs presented as a series over several nights, even commentary or essays.

The very audacity of the concept appealed to Ms. Sawyer, who met not only with NBC News President Andrew Lack but with Bob Wright, the network president, and Jack Welch, who runs NBC's parent company, General Electric. The commitment of the corporation to NBC News was extraordinary, a sign that once-troubled NBC News is on the comeback trail -- and Ms. Sawyer was tempted by the chance to lead NBC to greater heights.

Ms. Sawyer really got her bosses' attention recently when she wouldn't anchor "PrimeTime" on the night the show was competing against a Connie Chung interview with Tonya Harding on CBS. Officially, ABC said Ms. Sawyer had the flu; in fact, she spent the day in serious negotiations, and some said she did not want to risk losing the ratings battle to Ms. Chung.

But Ms. Sawyer opted to stay at ABC News for a package that offered both the security of "PrimeTime Live" and the prospect of anchoring "Turning Point" and the struggling "Day One." "Turning Point" will tell a single story at 10 p.m. each Wednesday, beginning in March. Officially, ABC says Ms. Sawyer will contribute to "Day One," but expectations are that she'll ease into a role as co-anchor with Forrest Sawyer, who is no relation.

As part of the deal, ABC also promised to move "Day One" to 10 p.m. Mondays in 1995, effectively giving Diane Sawyer an anchor role on news shows on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 10.

Precisely how the ABC arrangement will work, no one knows. For example, it is still unclear when she begins work on "Day One." In the past, there's been competition as well as cooperation among the ABC prime-time shows.

"We're all going to work that out together," says Paul Friedman, executive vice president of ABC News. "We've talked about it a lot."

What's striking is that ABC and NBC both were willing to hand over the 10 p.m. period to news, making it all but impossible to schedule adult dramas on their networks. Had Ms. Sawyer agreed to go to NBC, the network would have almost certainly canceled such shows as "L.A. Law," "Law and Order" and "Homicide." At ABC, Steven Bochco's "NYPD Blue" will be the only 10 p.m. drama left if the ABC News programs succeed.

While terms of Ms. Sawyer's ABC contract weren't disclosed, insiders say money became a key issue in the final stages. Ms. Sawyer, who is married to film director Mike Nichols, has insisted she's not driven by financial matters. But an ABC colleague said: "Money, in this game, is power. Money, in this game, is a symbol of primacy."

That being so, Ms. Sawyer's newfound wealth is expected to trigger requests, if not demands, for salary adjustments from other ABC anchors, including Barbara Walters and Sam Donaldson.

Ms. Sawyer's contract is also sure to rekindle public debate over the star system and salaries in network news, which, some say, distort journalistic values. Networks that have closed foreign bureaus and laid off scores, if not hundreds, of people evidently remain eager to pay millions for brand-name talent.

NBC's Mr. Wheatley justifies his network's offer to Ms. Sawyer by saying a 10 p.m. strip of news programs would bring new revenue and greater employment opportunities to the news division, as well as programming benefits to the public. Stars, he notes, have always mattered in television.

But critics such as Jeff Cohen, the executive director of the watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, say the bloated salaries only widen the gap between those who deliver the news and those who watch it. Says Mr. Cohen: "These are millionaires who don't have a clue about how the rest of us live."

Ms. Sawyer could not be reached for comment, but an ABC executive says the network's stars generate millions of dollars of revenue for the news division, "and they work very hard for their money."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad