NBC correspondent Connie Chung jumped networks Monday to preside over a “revitalized” version of CBS’ low-rated news magazine “West 57th.” NBC countered by announcing that it had lured Mary Alice Williams, one of Cable News Network’s principal anchors, to become a key correspondent for a new prime-time news magazine of its own.
These latest developments among well-known network anchorwomen follow Diane Sawyer’s much-publicized departure from “60 Minutes” last month to co-anchor a new ABC prime-time news program with Sam Donaldson. Former NBC White House correspondent Chris Wallace also switched networks last year for a chance to work on ABC’s new program.
There had been speculation for the past month that Chung, whose reported $900,000 a year contract with NBC expires in May, would return to CBS News to help rebuild its floundering Saturday-night news show.
CBS News President David Burke said Monday that Chung, whose network career began with CBS News in 1971 and who anchored for 8 years at what is now KCBS-TV Channel 2 in Los Angeles, would also anchor a Sunday edition of the “CBS Evening News” and will occasionally substitute for Dan Rather on the network’s weeknight newscasts. (Sawyer’s former spot on “60 Minutes” remains unfilled.)
Chung joined NBC in 1983 and currently anchors the Saturday “NBC Nightly News” and contributes reports to Tom Brokaw’s weeknight version. In 1986, she co-anchored NBC’s low-rated “1986" prime-time news magazine series with Roger Mudd, but that show lasted only four months.
An NBC official said that the network had chosen to let Chung go rather than meet her demands, which, the official said, included complete editorial control over the new prime-time program, the right to name her own executive producer, assurance that she would be the sole anchor and a significantly higher salary.
Chung was out of her office Monday and could not immediately be reached for comment. CBS officials were unable to say exactly when she will go to work for them.
Though an NBC spokeswoman insisted that Williams’ hiring had nothing to do with Chung’s departure, CNN’s most famous woman anchor said she left the cable network to become one of the principal correspondents for an NBC prime-time news program, tentatively titled “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.” Other correspondents for the new program have yet to be determined.
Beginning Monday, Williams will also report for NBC’s other news programs and will be available to serve as a substitute anchor for all of NBC’s news programs, including “NBC Nightly News.” She will also anchor “NBC News at This Hour,” the network’s hourly afternoon news updates.
“It was a very difficult decision,” Williams said Monday in a phone interview while clearing out her office at CNN in New York. “I love CNN. I was one of the originals, but I’m being given an opportunity to do something I’ve never done before. It’s an exciting challenge.”
Williams, who had been with CNN since its inception nine years ago, would not reveal details concerning the prime-time program at NBC, except to say that it is tentatively scheduled to premiere in monthly installments beginning this summer, switching to weekly broadcasts by January.
NBC, which has not had a prime-time news show for the past two years, has produced 14 ill-fated news magazines since the mid ‘60s, including “Summer Sunday” with Linda Ellerbee and, most recently, “1986" with Mudd and Chung.
ABC has not yet announced a premiere date for Sawyer and Donaldson’s new program, but it will join “20/20" as the network’s second prime-time magazine. CBS currently airs three prime-time news shows: “60 Minutes,” “West 57th” and “48 Hours.”
Williams broadcast from the CNN anchor desk in New York for the final time last Friday. She had been teamed with Bernard Shaw out of Washington and Lou Waters from Atlanta on the all-news network’s primary daily newscasts.
A network spokesman said that CNN will no longer have a New York-based anchor on its 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. (EST) newscasts. Mary Anne Loughlin will co-anchor the 5 p.m. newscast with Waters from Atlanta this week, while Shaw and Waters will continue as the 8 p.m. anchors. Beyond that, CNN has no permanent plans on how it will replace Williams.