ABC News President Roone Arledge came to town last week to meet with what networks call the consumer press
out-of-town TV writers. One apparently amicable disagreement with another ABC News executive ensued. In between, Arledge reported that:
--The division is negotiating a new contract with Barbara Walters that offers her a raise, not a salary cut, as has been rumored. He said he thinks that Walters, who joined ABC in 1976, will sign her new pact "very shortly."
--Next fall, ABC News will premiere a new 30-minute Sunday series about business and finance. Anchored by Sander Vanocur and called "The Bottom Line," it will be offered to ABC stations before and after "This Week With David Brinkley."
--Contrary to rumors, ABC News is not negotiating with Linda Ellerbee--whose current NBC News contract expires on Wednesday--about anchoring ABC's new "Our World" series.
--No anchor has been picked yet for "Our World," a one-hour contemporary history series scheduled for next fall on prime time. On some "rare" occasions actors will say the actual words spoken by various real-life participants in an historical event.
The disagreement portion of Arledge's meet-the-press session occurred when reporters asked him and his partner at the podium--Av Westin, executive producer of ABC News' "20/20" news-magazine series--about an issue that stirred a storm last October.
It involved Arledge's axing of a "20/20" story that probed purported sexual liaisons between actress Marilyn Monroe and President John F. Kennedy, and later between the actress and Kennedy's brother, Robert, then U.S. Attorney General.
Arledge, a close friend of Robert Kennedy's widow, Ethel, emphasized, as he has before, that the Kennedy clan "had no input" into his decision. He said the segment was dropped because he thought it failed to prove its thesis that the two brothers' rumored affairs with Monroe left them open to blackmail by organized crime.
Westin, who disputed Arledge's decision at the time the segment was dropped but wasn't available for comment then, was asked about it during Friday's press conference at the Century Plaza Hotel.
"I believe," he replied, "that the reporting that we had done was well-sourced and was adequate to enable the piece to go on (the air)." However, he philosophically noted that management always has the final word. "I work for a man whom I respect, and management has the right at any time to say, 'Look, pal, before you put this in my newspaper or put this on my air, I want more (proof), and I want more, and I want more,' " Westin said.
"The disagreement was over whether more could be obtained. And what we did agree on was that probably we could not, with our resources, obtain any more. . . . The issue is now moot, as far as we're concerned."
Asked what he'd learned from the experience, he dryly said that in doing certain stories, "instead of using four sources (to check aspects of a story), in some cases go to five and six."
He and Arledge presented a united front, however, in talking up "Our World," of which Westin also is executive producer. The program will air on Thursday nights, the same night as "20/20," with "The Colbys" the evening's only ABC entertainment offering.
Putting "Our World" opposite NBC's hit "The Bill Cosby Show" on that night is "something like a kamikaze pilot taking off on a mission," Arledge wryly conceded.
However, he emphasized, "we're not going to waste our time and . . . just try to fill a problem area for the entertainment division. We're doing this because we think any time you can do news programming in prime time, that's a benefit for the viewer" as well as an alternative to entertainment programs offered by CBS and NBC.
The new series will cost $400,000 to $500,000 a show. But it still is far less expensive than entertainment wares, which can run upward of $1 million per hourlong episode. The prospect of a less costly show is said to greatly appeal to ABC's cost-conscious new owners, Capital Cities.
Westin told the visiting reporters that the series would air 36 original shows a year and rerun 12, with the remaining four weeks of each year left open for preemptions or prime-time sportscasts.
He later said that its looks back at history would range from the 1930s to the '70s, but probably concentrate on the '50s and the '60s, eras for which "baby boomers"--viewers now nearing 40--would find most appealing.