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‘It’s the People, Not the Offer’

Times Staff Writer

Barring a last-minute change, Connie Chung will do a farewell to NBC tonight--as a guest on puckish David Letterman’s late-night show. Then she’ll start life and career anew back at CBS News.

She said Tuesday that she has no trepidations about returning to the network where she worked for 12 years, including co-anchoring at what now is KCBS-TV Channel 2 in Los Angeles from 1976 to 1983.

Chung, 42, will be sole anchor of a revamped version of CBS’ “West 57th” series next fall. She will also anchor the Sunday “CBS Evening News” and will be on the roster of those who fill in for Dan Rather when he is absent from the weeknight “CBS Evening News.”

She cited three men as the main reason she decided to rejoin CBS after six years at NBC: “Howard Stringer, David Burke and Andy Lack.”

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She referred, respectively, to the former CBS News president who now is president of the CBS Broadcast Group, the current president of CBS News, and the executive producer of “West 57th.”

“At certain stages in your life, and at a certain age, it’s precisely whom you’re going to work with” that proves the reason for a job change, she explained. “It’s the people, not the offer. . . .”

NBC News, which lost Chris Wallace to ABC News last December, fought hard to keep Chung in its star stable. That effort failed, but the network did succeed in hiring Mary Alice Williams away from her anchoring duties at CNN, announcing her arrival on the same day last week that Chung made her exit.

(Williams already is getting on-air exposure at her new home. She anchored last Saturday’s “NBC Nightly News” and is scheduled as a guest on Friday’s “The Tonight Show.”)

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One of the proposals NBC made in its bid to keep Chung was anchoring its latest prime-time news project, tentatively called “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.”

Ironically, Lack of “West 57th” also had been talking with NBC News late last year and early this year about moving there to work with Chung on the new series.

He stayed put, though, he said, because “I got a better offer from CBS . . . and, in the end, I guess, that was the case with Connie as well.”

Once Lack had made his decision, he added, he joined in the effort to bring Chung back to CBS News, where she now reportedly will earn $1.3 million annually, up $400,000 from her last berth at the Peacock Network.

Lack said that Chung will report to work in two weeks but probably will not appear on “West 57th” until its new incarnation arrives in the fall. She has her work cut out. So does Lack.

Like “60 Minutes,” “West 57th” began on a Tuesday night and was critically panned when it debuted in August, 1985, mostly for its sleek packaging and jazzy opening.

But unlike “60 Minutes,” which thrived when it moved to Sunday nights, “West 57th” is languishing in its current time slot of Saturdays at 10 p.m. It ranks 86th among the 100 series that have appeared on the three major networks this season and is the lowest-rated of the four network prime-time news magazines, attracting only 14% of the audience on average.

Lack professes not to be bothered. Indeed, he said, he’s happy that his series is second to NBC’s “Hunter” and beats ABC’s entertainment wares on Saturday night. “I like that time slot,” he said. “I’ve said that from the beginning, when everyone else said, ‘You die Saturday night at 10 o’clock.’ ”

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“West 57th” will be in the same spot next fall, he said.

But exactly what the new version will look like then--or even if it will keep its title--is uncertain. “I must say, there’s too much emphasis placed (by TV writers) on the format and cosmetics of these things, and too little on what are the stories they do, and how well they do them,” he said.

Also uncertain is whether it will have its four regular correspondents back. The contracts of all but Karen Burnes are up next month, Lack confirmed. Negotiations to keep Meredith Vieira, John Ferrugia and Steve Kroft at “West 57th” are under way, Lack said.

There is speculation that Kroft, who has been with “West 57th” since November, 1986, will move to “60 Minutes” to fill the slot vacated by Diane Sawyer, who has joined ABC News to anchor a new prime-time series with Sam Donaldson.

Chung said she had no idea what look “West 57th” might have next fall. “We’ve talked a lot over lunch and dinner,” but nothing firm has developed, she said.

“And anyway, chiseling anything in stone--or even temporarily in clay--is terribly premature. So when I go there in a couple of weeks, we’ll begin that process.”


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