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Star-Gazing Over the True Meaning of a Player Swap

Start the parade, toss the confetti.

Diane Sawyer leaves CBS for ABC. Connie Chung leaves NBC for CBS. Mary Alice Williams leaves CNN for NBC.

Does it matter? Yes . . . no . . . maybe. As TV news anchors like to say, “Stay with us.”

The new assignments:

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Sawyer: Trades prominent role on “60 Minutes” for more money and future as Sam Donaldson’s co-anchor on ABC prime-time news program.

Chung: No more anchoring Saturday’s “NBC Nightly News” and occasional NBC news specials. Next stop: anchor role on remodeled “West 57th” and the “CBS Evening News” on Sunday, and filling in for Dan Rather. Plus more money.

Williams: Goodby to anchoring CNN’s prime-time news from New York with vice president’s title. Hello to anchoring planned prime-time news series and substitute anchoring other news programs on NBC. Plus more money.

What does it mean?

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Here is one well-placed CBS News source thinking out loud:

“It’s a three-way trade with some women who have proven credentials and a lot of box-office personality. It’s good business for all of them. Of the three, Sawyer has certainly proved herself as a very solid reporter. She’s a very smart woman. But none of them is an airhead.”

The words “box office” stand out.

“Show business is clearly a part of what we do for a living,” said Deep Source, a serious, seasoned journalist who requested anonymity. “You can argue about the box-office draw of each particular woman. What this shows is that there is a value placed on not only their ability to report, but also their attributes as a whole.”

Because all of the subjects are female, have the Sawyer, Chung and Williams shifts been overcovered?

“They’ve been doing it with white men for years,” Deep Source said about highly publicized network talent wars. “The battles over Dan Rather, Ted Koppel, Charles Osgood and Charles Kuralt were examples of that. When you get to this level of superstardom, it certainly draws your interest. I think it’s a measure of how much women have advanced in the business.”

NBC News has promised to use the reported $900,000 it had been paying Chung to hire three more experienced correspondents. Wouldn’t CBS News--which has cut back on staff for budgetary reasons--be better off, too, using the money it was paying Sawyer to add reporters instead of the mega-salaried Chung?

“That’s naive,” Deep Source insisted. “You always will have to have superstars to bring people into the tent.”

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The problems begin when the superstars inevitably obscure the tent.

More than anything else, this latest episode of musical stars is evidence anew of TV’s homage to celebrity journalists. Sawyer/Chung/Williams has far less to do with the gathering and reporting of news than with super agents and super lawyers and with the way news on TV is tailored to and shaped around personalities. This is a corporate business exercise played out far above the trenches.

It’s true that the contracts of Sawyer, Chung and Williams happened to have expired in close proximity, and that perhaps gender was not a factor. Yet the more compelling scenario finds Chung being hired precisely to replace CBS’s best-known female, Sawyer, and Williams being hired precisely to replace NBC’s best-known female, Chung. Networks do business that way. Carrying it further, the next move seems to be CNN’s, TV’s version of the player to be named later.

Accompanying all of this is the usual stereotyping--those reports that Barbara Walters was uneasy about Sawyer and that ABC had soothingly assured her that she would not be eclipsed by the hiring of Sawyer. As if there were room for only one female superstar in each news division.

The Walters story evoked the cliched image of jealous women clawing each other like cats. As Chung herself bitterly noted about the story recently: “It’s always the women who are (seen as) fighting.”

As to the “proven credentials” of Sawyer, Chung and Williams, meanwhile, opinions surely differ.

Unlike some news superstars, Sawyer at CBS was no absentee correspondent who let field producers shoulder the entire load. Far from being distinguished, however, her work on “60 Minutes” was memorable mostly for her prominence in her own stories.

Chung is well liked by colleagues. In reviewing her six years at NBC (after a dozen at CBS), however, no highlights come to mind, and a couple of her specials were downright embarrassing.

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Williams, in addition to being CNN’s strongest anchor--she especially shone during coverage of last summer’s political conventions--oversaw CNN’s New York bureau. Whether her skills translate to NBC remain to be seen, but of all the parties in this “trade,” CNN would seem to be the biggest loser.

As with all so-called trades, the outcome may not be known for years. The bet here, however, is that the answer is not in the news, but in the stars.


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