ABU ABBAS SHADOW STILL CLOUDS SKIES OVER NBC
The spirit of Palestinian extremist guerrilla leader Abu Abbas lingered here in Maui amid the fun-in-the-sun at NBC’s annual meeting with its affiliate stations.
NBC is still sensitive about the controversy surrounding its secret interview with Abbas, who masterminded the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro last October. So Lawrence Grossman, president of NBC News, defended the sensitivity of the network’s news-gathering operation, lest the men and women who broadcast NBC’s shows have any doubts.
“We knew of the plan to bomb Libya. We knew of the secret defense components of the earlier shuttle launches. We knew security data involving hostages of the TWA hijacking. We broadcast none of it,” Grossman told the crowd of 1,200 at the Hyatt Regency.
Acknowledging criticism that NBC didn’t reveal Abbas’ whereabouts to authorities, Grossman added: “NBC is neither a national intelligence service nor a law-enforcement agency. We do not have the authority or ability to arrest fugitives. Our role is to report the news.”
That tenet applies as well, Grossman said, to similar criticism of NBC regarding its report on Ivy Bells, the U.S. intelligence project that convicted spy Ronald Pelton sold to the Soviet Union.
The latter “dust-up,” Grossman said, is “another example of the healthy adversarial relationship between the press and the government.”
Grossman, the only man seen wearing a tie and jacket at the opening business session of this largely celebratory three-day affair, was, fittingly, also the only executive to broach such serious issues.
But he also had a pitch or two up his sleeve, and informed the affiliate station managers that NBC would yet get some more mileage out of the Abu Abbas situation: on the second installment of the new “1986" prime-time news show on Tuesday, Tom Brokaw will anchor a segment titled “The Achille Lauro--Incident in Terrorism.” Grossman said that it would be based “in large part” on correspondent Henry Champ’s interview with Abbas.
“Here will be the real story of what happened and why it happened,” Grossman said.
Controversial news-gathering, however, is not at the forefront of affiliates’ concerns this year. The real thrust of this year’s gathering--coinciding with NBC’s 60th anniversary--could be found in remarks made by Pier Mapes, president of NBC’s network television division, about the exceedingly good health of network ad sales.
“NBC heads into 1987 as the clear leader in households, age demographics, upscale viewers and quality programming,” Mapes told the audience, which represented 207 affiliate stations from across the United States.
With that kind of outlook, it was not surprising to find even Brokaw and Grossman--this time in sport clothes--on the luau buffet line Monday night, smiling right along with everyone else.
MORE ON TARTIKOFF: Industry rumor is that Brandon Tartikoff, the NBC programming chief who Monday announced that he has signed a new, long-term contract with the network, was offered a multimillion-dollar deal by Columbia Pictures to head the studio. Why, beyond his professed love for his job, would Tartikoff stay with NBC?
One possible answer may lie with the fact that all three networks are expected to increase in-house production of shows such as those currently supplied by studios and independent producers. Tartikoff said Monday that he would be overseeing broadened in-house production--and even an occasional feature film under the NBC Productions banner.
There’s speculation that the carrot NBC dangled was not only the chance to get his feet wet in actual production, but also to possibly own a percentage of some of those in-house shows.
As to the notion that Tartikoff would leave NBC while still on top--presumably when his contract expires next year--he said that he enjoys the pressure to keep NBC No. 1 in the ratings. “In kind of a sick way, that gets me more up for the battle.”