Ted Turner proposed buying CBS for $5.8 billion. CBS fought him and won. Capital Cities Communications proposed buying ABC for $3.5 billion and succeeded. And General Electric wooed and quickly won RCA, parent of NBC, for $6.28 billion.
Such was 1985, network television’s Year of the Takeover, a year in which press baron Rupert Murdoch also played a part with his $1.4-billion purchase of Metromedia’s seven television stations.
The impending GE-RCA marriage drew criticism from consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who brooded about the effect GE’s ownership would have on the independence of NBC News in reporting on areas in which GE is involved, such as the defense industry.
Not to worry, NBC news and entertainment executives said after the takeover was announced in December: GE will leave the network alone.
The takeover is by no means a certainty yet. It still needs approval by government regulatory agencies, and there also could be Justice Department and congressional objections. But all that will be faced in 1986.
As for 1985, it was a fine year for NBC, now leading in prime-time ratings, but just awful for ABC, now third in the Nielsens. It wasn’t fun, either, for six-season ratings champ CBS, and not just because it was second in season-to-date evening ratings as the year ended.
As 1985 began, Gen. William C. Westmoreland’s $120-million libel suit against CBS News still was under way. He subsequently dropped it. But then came Turner’s takeover attempt, and enough turmoil in CBS News to make Job’s woes seem only the warm-up act.
In warding off Turner, CBS Inc. spent $1 billion to buy back about 21% of its stock, a move that forced it to sell some of its assets and lay off employees, including 74 at CBS News and another 40 in its records division.
At CBS News, there also was the ill-fated attempt to boost the ratings of the third-place “CBS Morning News” by installing as its co-anchor the bubbly Phyllis George, who had no news background.
The ratings stayed down and the much-criticized George quit after nine months (her co-anchor, Bill Kurtis, quit two months before she did and returned to his old job as an anchor at CBS-owned WBBM-TV in Chicago).
George’s arrival and departure were only two of many notable moves at both CBS News and in ABC’s entertainment and news divisions in 1985.
CBS News President Edward M. Joyce, reportedly disliked by some staffers for what they called his cold, aloof style, was ousted. He was shifted to another post at CBS Inc., and his CBS News post taken by the man he succeeded in 1983--Van Gordon Sauter.
Sylvia Chase and Geraldo Rivera parted ways with ABC News. Each had been with the “20/20" series since it began in 1978. Chase took an anchoring job in San Francisco. Rivera, whose contract wasn’t renewed, said he wanted to assess his life and career.
Over in ABC’s corporate towers, major shifts also occurred as the network sought ways in November to avoid the prime-time ratings cellar for the second year in a row.
The shuffle started when Anthony Thomopoulos resigned as president of the ABC Broadcast Group. A day later, Lewis H. Erlicht was demoted from president to senior vice president of ABC Entertainment. Brandon Stoddard--head of ABC Motion Pictures--was named the new president of the entertainment division.
Although this made for a lot of comings and goings at the networks, the year’s swiftest hello-and-good-by was made by a civilian, Barry Bremen, a part-time hoaxer. During the Emmy Awards show in Pasadena, he boldly walked on stage and accepted an Emmy without authorization.
Led away in handcuffs, he later was charged with an infraction, “interfering with an event.” Many television observers agreed that he had handily won the 1985 award for Most Notable Entrance and Exit in a Single Day.
But other, less-publicized awards also were made in 1985. They included:
--God Is My Co-Anchor Award: To Dan Rather, who, in speaking of news, told executives of CBS affiliates: “Insofar as it’s humanly possible, and with God’s help, we’re going to report it straight.”
--Here’s One for You and You and You Award: To the Emmy Award industry, which in 1948 made only six awards. It now needs five separate ceremonies to give more than 150 of the coveted honors to those who have made national television what it is today.
--On Second Thought Award: To Forbes magazine, for its Dec. 16 edition that hit the stands a few days before RCA agreed to a takeover by GE. In that edition, it was written: “Today RCA is more likely to acquire than be acquired.”
--Good Night and Good Luck Award: To HBO for “Murrow,” a docudrama about Edward R. Murrow, the saintly CBS News correspondent. In one scene, Murrow (Daniel J. Travanti) faces CBS chief William S. Paley (Dabney Coleman) and warns him:
“This industry has got to be a helluva lot more than an industry. It has to hold up a mirror to the nation, to the world. That mirror must have no curves. And it must be held with a steady hand.”
--Camelot Preservation Society Award: To ABC News chief Roone Arledge, for canceling the scheduled broadcast of a “20/20" story about the rumored affairs of Marilyn Monroe with both President John F. Kennedy and Kennedy’s brother, Robert. Arledge said the story needed more work.
--With All Deliberate Speed Award: To the Federal Communications Commission, which approved the Capital Cities-ABC and Murdoch-Metromedia deals in one day. The same day.
--Enough Already Award: Tie between “Miami Vice” gumshoe Don Johnson for appearing on countless magazine covers, and Rolling Stone magazine for a cover that declared Steven Spielberg the “Most Powerful Man in Hollywood.”
--I Won’t Dance, Don’t Ask Me Award: To Phyllis George for asking Gary Dotson, convicted rapist, and Kathleen Crowell Webb, his repentant accuser, to hug each other. They declined.
--I Will Tell It Like It Is No More Award: To Howard Cosell, who is leaving ABC Sports after a colorful, often controversial career spanning 20 years (it is not a complete exit, though; he will continue on ABC Radio).
--Hello, Larry, That’s Real People Award: To McLean Stevenson and Sarah Purcell, whose syndicated afternoon talk and feature series is being axed after less than four months on the air.
--Can’t We Just Be Friends Award: To the Screen Actors Guild which, citing uncertainty on how AIDS is transmitted, said that actors don’t have to do “open-mouth” kissing scenes if they haven’t been told about it in advance.
--The Mike Todd Award: To “60 Minutes” executive producer Don Hewitt, for offering to buy CBS News.
Hopscotching around the television world, 1985 also yielded these items of interest:
--If Elected, I Will Go to Iowa: Actor Fred Grandy, who played Gopher the purser on ABC’s “Love Boat” for nine years, has left the show. He says he’ll be a GOP candidate for Congress in Iowa’s 6th Congressional District next year.
--Good Evening, Mr. and Mrs. America, and All the Ships at Sea: The “NBC Nightly News” will be beamed by satellite to cruise ships, starting in January with the Queen Elizabeth II. It is not known if the Love Boat will pipe Tom Brokaw aboard.
-- Et Voila, C’est Comme Ca : The “CBS Evening News” will soon be beamed by satellite for viewing in France.
--Say G’dye, Ted: ABC News says Ted Koppel and his “Nightline” news series now is seen in Australia, albeit on a tape-delay basis at 6:30 a.m.
--Ol’ Mount Rushmore Is Back: Charlton Heston, to whom Esquire magazine once awarded a can of Red Devil Paint Remover for his film portrayal of Michelangelo, is working for ABC as the co-star of “The Colbys.”
--Executive Sees Light: NBC News, whose press agents loudly trumpeted NBC’s coverage of the TWA hostage crisis, won’t do that sort of thing anymore, says NBC News chief Larry Grossman. Such trumpeting, he says, is “unseemly, and I think it puts the wrong spin on things.”
--Farm News: CBS, while preparing to sell some of its assets to help pay for its victory over Ted Turner, discovers that its records division somehow acquired a lemon farm in California years ago. CBS will sell the farm.
And lastly, there were these notable quotes in 1985:
“You see, I’ve got natural rhythm"--Prince Charles to reporters as he clapped in time to the opening act of the internationally televised Live Aid rock concerts to fight famine in Africa.
“It’s kind of a natural thing that comedy should come to daytime. Everyone’s getting sick of heaving and grunting"--Ann Marcus, who is creating a combination sitcom-soap opera for ABC’s daytime schedule. Her show emphasizes laughs, not scenes of unshirted passion.
“It’s going to come down to this: Can NBC overtake CBS before Ted Turner does?"--NBC Entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff last May on his network’s prime-time ratings prospects for the 1985-86 season.
“‘We’re really looking forward to 1986. It has to be a lot better than 1985"--CBS Board Chairman Thomas H. Wyman to stock analysts after CBS Inc. posts its first loss as a publicly held concern, a third-quarter net loss of $114.1 million.