The head of CBS' affiliate advisory board said Monday that CBS anchor Dan Rather "blew it" in leaving his newscast for six minutes Friday, creating an apparently unprecedented situation in which viewers of more than half of CBS' affiliated stations saw blank screens instead of the "CBS Evening News."
However, Phil Jones, whose Kansas City station was among those affected, said that he accepts the explanations of both Rather and CBS News President Howard Stringer that it was a mistake, and won't ask the network for an investigation.
The incident occurred during the first of two scheduled network "feeds" of Rather's "CBS Evening News" broadcasts Friday from Miami, where the program originated as part of CBS' coverage of Pope John Paul II's U.S. visit.
The "feeds" are transmissions to affiliates; two versions of basically the same show are sent out to allow stations the flexibility of where they schedule it in their early-evening news package. The blank-screen incident wasn't seen on the CBS stations either here or in Los Angeles because they take the second feed at 7 p.m. EDT.
The episode did not repeat itself Monday, even though the U.S. Open singles finals between Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander pre-empted the 6:30 feed and ran until 7:02 p.m. EDT. Rather and the "CBS Evening News" began broadcasting after a commercial break.
On Friday, however, Rather's staff had been notified shortly before the first broadcast was to air live at 6:30 p.m. EDT that coverage of the tennis tournament semi-finals might extend into the newscast's time.
Rather, who was in Washington and not available for comment Monday, reportedly called Stringer and said that he didn't want to go on the air with a shortened version of his newscast. Stiil, he was ready at 6:30 p.m.
But when CBS's tennis coverage went beyond that, Rather left his post to make other calls and, when the tennis show ended at 6:32 p.m., he wasn't in his anchor chair for the broadcast.
The network went to black for six minutes while news staffers looked for him. In the interim, affiliates either rushed on their own anchors to fill time, posted "Please Stand By" signs or put on taped entertainment shows.
CBS affiliate WTVJ-TV in Miami dropped Rather's newscast altogether and aired in its place a rerun of "The New Newlywed Game."
A CBS News spokesman said that Rather hadn't known that the CBS sportscast was going to end so abruptly. "Evening News" executive producer Tom Bettag, who wasn't available for comment, said the same thing in a conference call Monday to CBS News bureaus, one source said.
However, Susan Kerr, a CBS Sports spokeswoman, said that executives at the news division "were aware of when we were going off the air." She said that the news division had asked to take over the network as soon as the tennis match ended, and when it did, "we gave them the network back immediately."
One CBS News insider said that Rather's six-minute absence "certainly had the characteristics of a snit," a protest of the intrusion of CBS' tennis coverage into time he felt belonged to his newscast.
Ron Handberg, vice president of CBS affiliate WCCO-TV in Minneapolis, said that it was difficult to know the real reason for Rather's absence. But he was critical of the anchorman, who is paid an estimated $2.5 million annually.
"Whether it was a protest walkout, or he was on the phone and didn't really know it (the tennis coverage) was over, he left the network, CBS News and the affiliates looking very silly," Handberg said.
CBS News chief Stringer, in a prepared statement, blamed the incident on "confusion between CBS Sports and CBS News." He expressed regrets to viewers and affiliates alike, and vowed that "we will do everything possible to make sure that such an occurance does not happen again."
Rather, in a prepared statement, didn't apologize. But he said that he hadn't meant for the network to go black. "I would never--nor would anyone at CBS News--even think of deliberately allowing the network to go black."
Affiliate board President Jones, whose KCTV-TV had to air a "Please Stand By" sign during Rather's absence--said that he knows Rather has fought to make sure his newscast airs on time.
Nevertheless, he added, "I think he blew it in not recognizing that when he left (the anchor desk), then if they cut to him and he wasn't there, that he would be presenting everybody with a real problem. He flat-out blew it, and I think he probably knows that."
Jones said that he didn't think Rather had left his post to protest the tennis over-run. "But normally you would know that anything can happen in live television," he said, "so you should be at your post."
Rather was there Monday. CBS News spokesman Tom Goodman said that the news division understood that CBS was contractually obligated to carry the finals match to its conclusion. The match was to have been played Sunday but was rained out.
Monday's match ended at 7:02 p.m. EDT. Although it meant there was not the usual 6:30 p.m. feed to affiliates, Rather's "CBS Evening News" began promptly at 7:05 p.m. EDT, meaning only five minutes was dropped from his newscast. CBS did not air the tennis awards ceremony live.
Rather's broadcast slipped into third place in ratings during the summer after more than 200 weeks in first place. However, in the most recent ratings, for the week ending Sept. 4, his "Evening News" came in first.
On or off duty, the intense, hard-driving Rather has been in the news for various reasons over the course of a year, starting last October when two well-dressed attackers assaulted him as he walked along Park Ave.
Rather, who told police his assailants kept asking him, "Kenneth, what's the frequency?", wasn't seriously injured. He later speculated that he had been the victim of mistaken identity.
A few months later, he puzzled some viewers by ending his newscasts with the exhortation, "Courage." But he dropped that after a week--during which some TV critics made sport of his new sign-off.
In March, on the sixth anniversary of his ascension to anchorship of the "CBS Evenng News," he briefly and symbolically joined striking CBS newswriters on their picket line outside the CBS Broadcast Center here.
A day later, he mildly criticised CBS board chairman Laurence Tisch in a New York Times op-ed article in which Rather worried about the effects of a Tisch-ordered $30 million budget cut at CBS News and the layoffs of 215 staffers there.
Last month, Rather provoked anger at ABC News when he reported on the escape of former ABC newsman Charles Glass from his captors in Beirut, when he told viewers: "A young American who says he was a hostage has turned up free." Although Rather seemed to be implying doubt that Glass had been kidnaped, the anchorman has steadfastly refused requests for interviews in which he could make clear exactly what he meant.