Faced with dissension in the ranks and the ouster of his major corporate ally the day before, Van Gordon Sauter quit Thursday as president of CBS News, ending an 18-year career that took him through 10 jobs, including general manager of KCBS-TV in Los Angeles.
Sauter’s departure was viewed as the initial fallout of a dramatic management shake-up at CBS Inc. on Wednesday that saw the forced resignation of Chairman Thomas H. Wyman in the wake of slumping ratings and declining profits. Wyman--with whom Sauter had allied himself in the internal struggle at CBS--was replaced temporarily by CBS’ 84-year-old founder, William S. Paley, and the company’s largest shareholder, Laurence A. Tisch, 63.
Company sources said Tisch, named CBS’ chief executive until a permanent successor to Wyman is appointed, is not expected to actively participate in the day-to-day program operations of CBS-TV, which, after six successive seasons as the leader in prime-time ratings, ended last season second to NBC.
Tisch met Thursday with the three top operating officers of CBS--Gene F. Jankowski, in charge of broadcasting; Walter A. Yetnikoff, in charge of records; and Peter A. Derow, in charge of publishing--to express his confidence in them, the company said.
Meanwhile, the broadcast and financial worlds erupted with speculation about who might be appointed as permanent successors to Wyman and Sauter.
CBS said British-born Howard Stringer, executive vice president of CBS News, would run the news division pending the appointment of a replacement for Sauter, 50.
Walter Cronkite, 69, the former CBS anchorman who is now paid $1 million annually to serve as a company director, consultant and special correspondent for CBS News, was among those prominently mentioned for the post. But he promptly dismissed that prospect.
Moyers Mentioned for Job
“I’m not in any way in the running to replace Mr. Sauter,” he said in an interview with Cable News Network. Bill Moyers, CBS’ Emmy-winning correspondent and commentator, also was considered a possible successor to Sauter. Moyers, 52, has said he is leaving CBS in November to return to public TV, and he has been publicly critical of the recent direction of CBS News. He was not available for comment Thursday.
“You can hear any rumor you want to hear--you name it, we got it,” quipped Don Hewitt, executive producer of “60 Minutes” and a long-time executive at CBS News.
But, if the CBS board had already decided on Sauter’s successor when Wyman resigned, “I think they would have announced it at the same time,” said the producer, who last year proposed buying CBS News--some observers called it a symbolic slap at Sauter--and was turned down.
Sauter, a bearded, gregarious former newspaperman, resigned as both an executive vice president of the CBS Broadcast Group and president of CBS News. It was his second tour in the latter position.
He has been head of CBS News from March, 1982, to September, 1983, and took over the division again 10 months ago after his hand-picked successor, Edward M. Joyce, was replaced amid the same kind of turmoil that accompanied what proved to be Sauter’s final stay there.
Whether Sauter was running the division or overseeing it, the problems within CBS News had provoked criticism that the once-proud division had fallen on hard times and was slowly succumbing to show business values in its attempt to keep ratings up.
Cronkite, interviewed Thursday night on the “CBS Evening News,” said that, with Paley and Tisch now running CBS, albeit on a temporary basis, “I think we will return to some traditional values, particularly in the news division.”
Other problems afflicting CBS News during Sauter’s tenure included Gen. William C. Westmoreland’s since-dropped $120-million libel suit over a 1982 CBS Vietnam documentary and the much-criticized hiring of former beauty queen Phyllis George as co-anchor of the “CBS Morning News.”
New Faces and Formats
George left last year after nine months on the job. She had been the latest in a series of new faces and formats brought to the low-rated “CBS Morning News” in an effort to make it competitive. This summer, CBS News finally gave up on the 23-year-old program and said it would be canceled in January.
The dropping of “Morning News” touched off more criticism, particularly by “60 Minutes” humorist Andy Rooney, who also publicly complained about 70 news division layoffs made in July as part of company-wide cost-cutting efforts, in which 700 jobs were eliminated.
Another major problem: The once-dominant “CBS Evening News” anchored by Dan Rather recently has run into stiff ratings competition from the “NBC Nightly News.”
Sauter, who was not available for comment Thursday, had vigorously defended himself against his critics. He has publicly exuded confidence, and that continued Thursday, even in his resignation statement, in which he said that, although “the difficulties of the past 10 months constituted an irreversible end game, I leave with pride in my work and respect and fondness for my former colleagues.” He did not disclose his plans. Sauter is married to Kathleen Brown, daughter of former California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Sr.
Reaction to his departure was subdued, save for Hewitt, who made no bones of his dislike for Sauter and his predecessor.
“I think the problem was that both Ed Joyce and Van Gordon Sauter wanted to be television executives more than they wanted to be news executives,” he said.
“I think it’s a mistake to make Sauter the scapegoat or the villain,” said Richard S. Salant, who left as CBS News president in 1979. “I think he did the things he did because that’s what management expected him to do.”
There was speculation Thursday that Sauter’s boss, Broadcast Group President Jankowski, also soon would be departing because of his ties to Wyman. But Tisch seemed to refute both that and rumors of a general house-cleaning.
Former CBS News President Fred Friendly, a friend of Tisch, praised CBS’ new acting head as a man the financial community respects: “He’ll be able to handle temporarily the Wall Street crowd . . . . He’s smart. He’s got all the moves of an Eric Dickerson.”
Friendly, who left CBS in 1966, described Tisch as a fan of hard, no-nonsense broadcast journalism and said that that bodes well for CBS News for the time being.
Critic of Bad Journalism
“All his instincts are right,” Friendly said. “He’s a tough critic of lousy journalism. The question is: Over the long haul, will he prevail?”
Among financial and broadcast industry observers, speculation mounted Thursday that CBS would seek a well-known executive as permanent successor to Wyman.
Perhaps most often mentioned was Robert Daly, chairman of Warner Bros. “That is the name everybody’s talking about,” one source close to CBS said.
Daly’s name emerged last month in reports that Tisch, dissatisfied with Wyman, was interested in offering him the post. He strongly denied any interest then, saying he had not been contacted by Tisch and was happy at the studio.
Other names circulating Thursday included Daniel B. Burke, president and chief operating officer of Cap Cities-ABC, and Douglas H. McCorkindale, vice chairman of Gannett Co. Both are considered top-notch executives known for running lean operations.
CBS has said its new permanent chief executive may come from its own ranks, but some analysts were skeptical that the current chiefs of CBS’ three operating divisions would be considered. Jankowski “doesn’t seem to share the cost-conscious attitudes” of Tisch, said one analyst, who asked not to be unidentified. Yetnikoff has “too flamboyant” a reputation, and Derow does not have a broadcast background, he said.
One analyst, Peter P. Appert of C.J. Lawrence in New York, predicted that the Tisch regime would bring cost-cutting at the corporate level of CBS. Tisch has demonstrated at Loews Corp., the tobacco, hotel and financial service firm he controls, that he “likes to push all the costs into operations and run very lean at the corporate level.”
Some analysts noted that, despite the elation in many parts of the broadcast industry that Paley and Tisch had taken control, the ouster of Wyman would have no effect on the company’s immediate financial prospects.
“The effect on the fundamentals of the company would be none at all,” said Ed Atorino, analyst with Smith, Barney Upham Harris in New York. “They’re taking one step backward to see if they can take two steps forward. We’ll have to see.”
Contributing to this story from New York were staff writers Paul Richter and Michael A. Hiltzik and researcher Tony Robinson.