A PHENOMENON NAMED JENNINGS

JACK BATTEN July 24 1965

A PHENOMENON NAMED JENNINGS

JACK BATTEN July 24 1965

PETER JENNINGS, once of the CBC and CTV, arrived on the American television scene in the same month this year that Jim Aubrey, once the biggest executive on the U. S. TV scene, was kicked off it. And therein may lie a lesson of sorts.

Jennings, who was twenty-eight this July and who worked for four years in Canadian public-affairs and news broadcasting, was hired last February at a salary of fifty thousand dollars a year by the American Broadcasting Company, the third largest — after CBS and NBC — of the three U. S. television networks, to perform as the studio anchorman in New York City on its five-evenings-a-week national news telecast. There are only two other jobs like it in American TV — Walter Cronkite is CBS’s anchorman and David Brinkley and Chet Huntley fill the role in tandem at NBC — and since Jennings gives away nearly a quarter of a century in age and experience to each of his rivals, his appointment clearly marked him as a leader among the bright, promising young men of his profession and of his medium.

“Peter’s value in this business,” Elmer Lower, the head of ABC’s news department, said at the time of Jennings’ appointment, “is that he brings to it a fresh approach that another man might take for granted.” Jennings himself said not long ago, “There are a lot of young guys in television who have ideals, and whatever it is they want for this industry, it sure isn’t the Beverly Hillbillies.”

Jim Aubrey just happens to be the man who put the Beverly Hillbillies on television. Aubrey was, until last February, president of CBS, the biggest of the three networks, a job that rewarded him with an annual salary of a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars and with 27.449 shares of CBS stock, which was selling at $44.75 the week he was fired. Aubrey got the axe from CBS despite his wealth and power because he couldn’t produce for them enough programs of the likes of the Beverly Hillbillies, shows that have the ability, whatever other qualities they may noticeably lack, of attracting large, very large viewing audiences. He was, in short, a victim of the most hideous and terrifying instrument of the produce-or-else school of judgment that American commerce has yet devised: the television-ratings system.

It happens, sadly enough, that Peter Jennings and the other “young guys in television who have ideals” are smack up against the very same system. And Jennings is especially vulnerable, for, preposterous as it may at first sound, the news, at least on television, has 'become a branch of showbusiness. For many television viewers, and therefore for the networks, TV newsmen are measured by some of the same yardsticks that singers and comedians are: appearance, voice, audience rapport and, for heaven’s sake, their smile. It isn’t enough to report the news crisply and with dispatch the way lovable old stone-faced Earl Cameron does on the CBC late news; American newsmen must also put some personality on their delivery. They are deeply involved in the massive economic pressures of American television and they are, alas, subject like the rest of TV to the vagaries of the ratings.

Jennings, coming from the relatively noncompetitive minor leagues of the CBC and CTV, is perfectly aware of this harsh new fact of his television life: “If the ratings don’t move under my show,” he says, “I’ll go the same way Ron Cochran, the guy 1 succeeded, went — out, way out.” Jennings also knows that he is subject to a special pressure: he came into ABC decidedly in the role of the underdog in the three-network news struggle. Walter Cronkite and Hunlley-Brinkiey are not only established solidly as news reporters and just as solidly as sponsor draws (a one-minute commercial on CBS News or NBC News costs twenty thousand dollars; on ABC News $9,500 to $10,500), they are also firmly set in the American viewers’ minds as TV personalities. Cronkite is the respectful intimate of President Eisenhower and other aging statesmen, and Brinkley is a Washington celebrity who throws parties for people like Bobby Kennedy and James Baldwin. Variety spelled out the special burden that has been forced on Jennings in its review of his first program last February: “ABC’s news muckamucks are hopeful they’ve finally come up with a worthy challenger in the personality department.”

One of the weapons Jennings has going for him in the personality battle is a strikingly handsome TV presence. His good looks are an essential to ABC whose high-powered publicity / continued on page 42

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department hills it as “the network for young adults,” but they’re an asset that Jennings himself is doing his best to ignore. “I don’t care who watches my show,” he says, “so long as they watch it and get something out of it aside from the fact that my hair is combed and my teeth are straight.” More than looks, Jennings has in his favor apparently limitless energy and ambition — enough to keep him functioning through a regular twelveto - fourteen - hour day — and the approach to his work of a thoroughly hip professional. On a recent Monday morning, he arrived at his office at 9.15 a.m. to find his desk already stacked high with long strips of tape from the AP and UPI wire services — possible raw material for that night’s program. The office is small, cluttered, and decorated with an Eskimo print, a maple leaf flag and a television set. Jennings uses the set mostly to watch the opposition in action. He says he admires Brinkley’s style but doesn’t consciously copy it: “Occasionally I catch myself sounding like Brinkley and it grates.”

One wall of Jennings’ office stops three feet short of the ceiling and all day he will shout across the gap to the man in the office on the other side; he is Wally Pfister, who. produces the ABC-TV News and who is Jennings’ immensely capable boss. The other offices on the news-department floor, which is notably stingy on space, are taken up by two writers, two film editors, a couple of secretaries, a handful of miscellaneous assistants, and a man with drooping moustaches who can conjure from his throat any one of several dozen sound effects, from exploding grenades to a burst of applause, that the evening’s news may demand. “We’re gloriously understaffed here,” Jennings says. Counting correspondents in the field, ABC is outmanned by CBS at a rate of three to one and by NBC at five to one. But Jennings seems to thrive in the atmosphere of the embattled underdog that hangs over ABC. All morning he moves, usually on the dead run, from conferences in Poster's office to screenings of film sent

in from the field to phone calls from ABC’s man in Santo Domingo or Washington or Cape Kennedy to his own typewriter for a fast lick of writing. “Somewhere in all this mess,” Pfister says, “some news somewhere is going to shape up.”

At 11.45 a.m. Jennings crosses the street to the offices of ABC radio and reads a five-minute newscast to four hundred stations across the United States. It’s a small chore, which he does with a certain flourish and for which he is paid forty dollars a reading, five times a week — a moonlighting extra to his basic salary. He goes to lunch, this Monday, at the Hotel Pierre where the Peabody Award luncheon is being held. Peabodies are given, annually and sparingly, for “distinguished broadcasting service,” and this year Jennings hears the awards chairman say that “the intelligent, adult audience has been consistently shortchanged by networks wooing teenagers.” In the Pierre’s lobby, Jennings runs into Leonard Goldenson who is the president of ABC. Goldenson tells him he is doing “a fine job.” Back at the office, high-level tension has replaced the morning’s galloping panic. It is now four hours to the 6 p.m. air time and the program hasn’t taken shape. “It’s like putting out a small magazine from scratch every day,” Jennings says. “We’ll just have a mild case of hysteria today,” Pfister says. “Usually it’s a crucial case.” In three quarters of an hour, Jennings, Pfister and the others, between more phone calls to correspondents around the continent, have worked out a schedule of news stories and Jennings sits down again at his typewriter to write four of the stories. He usually writes about fifty percent of the material he reads on television. “I keep personal comment out when I’m on camera,” he says. “My job, the way I see it, is to deliver the news that the Jennings unit has put together. Opinion is okay for the specialists, like Eric Sevareid at CBS, and for the guys in the field. Not for the anchorman.”

At 5.15, on the run again, he crosses to the makeup room where he has some flesh-colored powder patted on his face. When he returns he learns from Pfister that the film for the pro-

gram’s most important story, an exclusive interview with the former president of the Dominican Republic, Juan Bosch, has been lost somewhere in transit between Puerto Rico and New York City. Jennings writes some introductory remarks for a film clip of Adlai Stevenson’s defense of U. S. policy in Vietnam, delivered earlier that day at the UN. It will be used to fill in for the Bosch interview. A secretary retypes Jennings’ script and he takes it next door to the studio set from which ABC-TV News is telecast. He reads the script through once, with asides, jokes and a couple of soft-shoe steps thrown in, while the floor director lines up the angles he will use with the program’s three cameras.

Pfister comes on the set with a copy of the script. “No, the Rusk story will not come in here,” he tells Jennings. “Please, we haven’t got time. You handle the reporting, I’ll handle the producing.”

One minute to air time, the floor director announces.

“That’s the first time Wally and I have ever disagreed,” Jennings says. He puts his script pages in new order, crosses out something with a pencil and looks toward a camera.

From 6 to 6.15 Jennings reads the neus from a standup desk that holds a container of pencils, his script and. out of sight of the viewing audience, a small monitor on which he can sneak a look at his own TV style. Behind him, pictures and film are blown up on a huge screen, produced by a machine called an Eidophor for which ABC pays fifteen hundred dollars a week rent.

Jennings appears relaxed, competent, in charge. Outside camera range, there’s new panic: the lost film has turned up. At 6.15, Jennings and Pfister return to their offices and rewrite the entire program to accommodate the Bosch story. Only a handful of the 1 12 stations that take ABCTV News show the program live at 6 p.m.; the rest, including New York City, show it on tape at 6.30 or 6.45. There's time for Jennings to reshoot the entire program for those stations. And he does. Still appearing relaxed, competent and in charge, he looks into the camera and reads, for the first time, the script he and Pfister have just put together.

“Very nice, Peter,” Pfister says. "Very, very nice.”

JENNINGS KNEW when he was nine that he wanted to work in communications. He had before him the example of his father, Charles Jennings, now a CBC Ottawa executive, but in the 1930s Canadian radio’s voice of the national news. Peter Jennings' first radio job came when he was twenty-one at a small station in Brockville. Ont., and from there his career moved not merely ever upward but upward at a breathtakingly rapid pace. He worked in television in Montreal and Ottawa, handling everything from teenage dance parties to a Pierre Berton - type interview program. He put in a couple of months of on-camera announcing and interviewing on the CBC program Closeup. and then in 1962. he, along with Baden Langton, was picked by CTV to anchor the network's late - night national news. The pair developed enough finesse, in a variation of the Huntley-Brinkley school of reporting, and attracted enough viewers, to accomplish the impossible: they became a serious threat to Earl Cameron and his ratings.

They also attracted the attention of the news brass at ABC-TV, and both Jennings and Langton were hired away to the U. S. (Langton is now working in ABC radio around New York City.) Jennings went with ABC in September 1964 and worked for six months as a field correspondent, covering the Goldwater presidential campaign, the Queen’s tour of Canada and, most successfully, the continuing civil-rights story in the U. S. south. His work there was enough to convince ABC and last February they moved Jennings into their top news job.

The only drawback to the job and its long hours is that it cuts into the time that Jennings, who likes to enjoy

life on a grand scale, can devote to the good things. One of the best things in his life is his wife Valerie. She is the daughter of a prominent Toronto lawyer-businessman, Gerald Godsoe. and she's had an interesting, useful career herself: she has worked as a research assistant at Macleans and later on CBC's Closeup, as public-relations officer for the National Art Gallery in Ottawa, and now she is handling publicity for The Merv Griffin Show, a late-night TV pro-

gram in New York. Jennings, who is a first-class golfer, skier and cricket player, also misses the active life. But he’s trying to make up for that by riding his bicycle to work every day. four miles through Central Park from his east-side apartment.

Jennings and ABC are satisfied at this point with the reception his show is drawing from the viewing audience. Though it’s too early to arrive at any hard conclusions, ABC thinks Jennings must be luring away a few

Huntley-Brinkley and Cronkite fans. In June, one survey indicated that the program was showing an audience increase of three hundred thousand homes per show over last June, and the total audience is now pushing toward twenty million (to forty million for NBC). When he's better established. Jennings wants to put a little more daring, “more guts.” into his show, but, at least for now, the way things are going for him. he figures he's got the edge on Jim Aubrey. ★