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ABC’s Sawyer Concedes That ‘Soap Opera’ Sells

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At its annual affiliates convention this morning in Century City, ABC hauled out its glittery array of news stars--Peter Jennings, David Brinkley, Barbara Walters, Ted Koppel and Sam Donaldson, with Diane Sawyer live by remote from New York.

They talked about freedom around the world, flag-burning, poverty and other big issues.

But then they invited questions from the audience of about 1,200 station executives in the Century Plaza ballroom.

Steve Kimtian of WKBW-TV in Buffalo asked a stinger: What did it mean to this panel of “the world’s best journalists” that “PrimeTime Live” got its highest ratings for the program that featured an interview with model Marla Maples, Donald Trump’s friend?

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Sawyer, just back from Moscow, where she was interviewing KGB officials, seemed to blanch.

“Well, it doesn’t surprise me,” she said. “I mean, you all know what Marla Maples is all about. It’s about national soap opera, an irresistible slice of American culture.

“I’ll tell you what is more confounding, concerning something on the other end,” she said, deflecting the question, “namely, why did viewers turn away in droves from coverage of the Berlin Wall coming down?”

If there was a lesson to be learned here, Donaldson said, he hoped that ABC executives wouldn’t learn it. He said, metaphorically, that when the wall comes down again, he wants ABC to do the same kind of coverage.

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Jennings said “World News Tonight” ratings “held up pretty well” the week of the Berlin Wall events.

Walters put in: “Diane did Marla. I can be holier than thou, folks, but I did Donna Rice. (It was) the same interview.”

The audience broke up in laughter.

The ABC affiliates are meeting through Thursday.

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