Lawrence K. Grossman Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Pioneering Innovations in Broadcast Television: Conversation with Lawrence K. Grossman, President of PBS from 1976-84 and President of NBC News from 1984-88; 9/12/01 by Harry Kreisler

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Leading NBC News

So you've done your stint [at PBS], and then Grant Tinker calls you up one day and says, "Come over to NBC News"?

That's right.

That would have been what year?

I came to NBC News in 1984, so it was toward the end of '83 he called. NBC News had its problems with ratings and with quality, and he asked me to come back to New York and run NBC News, which had always been my fantasy and my dream. But I never imagined that that would be the case, since I had really never been directly responsible for news anywhere in broadcasting.

What did you find? Was it the same kind of shock that you describe in that earlier phase, where you were just the beginner in the business?

Well, I was. That gave me certain advantages, and, ironically, my experience with PBS gave me certain advantages on the commercial side. One was the need to cultivate the stations. The stations did not like NBC News because they thought it was arrogant and removed and [was] trying to persuade them to carry our specials and documentaries and prime time offerings. So I turned out to have a selling job there too.

But the other [advantage] was my experience with the satellite -- this was before any commercial broadcasters had satellite. We [at PBS] were really very advanced with satellite, with closed captioning -- public television led the way on all that. And I saw the opportunities for computers also, the notion that we could interconnect the worldwide NBC News, and put everybody online, in effect, through computer communication in its earliest form. And also break out of the studio, because we could use the satellite to transmit signals. We sent the Today show, which was in big trouble, to Moscow, and then to Peking, to the Vatican, to travel throughout the Mississippi Valley. It was very exciting and very dramatic because it broke all kinds of rules. But you had to come out of the studio in order to get a program on.

But there were some disappointments in what you found. In your book you say you found some of the journalists not intellectually curious, too responsive, situation-oriented, following the briefings, so to speak, in Washington. Talk a little about that.

Television news, you know, covers an awful lot of ground. And what surprised me when I came to NBC News, and it was true of the others as well, is how little really original reporting and thinking goes on. It's much easier and much cheaper and much more direct if there's a press conference, to cover the press conference. If the Secretary of State or the President or the Secretary of the Treasury is saying something or somebody is issuing some major new development, to attend the press conference and simply report it. But really strong journalism, not just investigative journalism but penetrating journalism that gives you an insight into what's going on in the world, requires much more initiative. And because of the demands of the job, and because you have to do so much in such a short period of time, there was very little original, initiative reporting going on, far too little. And today, it's worse.

Also, during this period and later, a corporate mentality infected the news operation. Is that a fair restatement of your view?

Yes, what happened ... two things happened in major ways. One was all of the major networks, which had strong, long traditions as responsible broadcasters, partly because of the government policy of operating in the public interest, were sold to outsiders, in a sense. To General Electric, in the case of NBC; in the case of CBS, to somebody who owned an investment portfolio, Larry Tisch, who saw the front-loaded losses that news was taking and said, "Why do we need all of that? Why do we need to spend all that money? It's interfering with our bottom line," -- even though it's an enormously profitable business overall. So they took a very different attitude toward it. At the same time, with all of the new media coming in, cable and direct broadcast via satellite, there was a sense of strong effort to deregulate television, to get the FCC out of this public interest notion, and to let the broadcasters to compete along with everybody else. And so there was no longer the fear or the concern about losing licenses -- they were protected -- and about having to use news as a loss leader, in effect. And so the mentality did change.

And also, news as entertainment. That probably came after the period of your presidency. But how did that creep in?

It was beginning to come. It was quickly apparent that the most costly thing in putting on nightly news programs is covering the hard news. And besides, people are getting CNN and getting the news elsewhere. But it was very cheap to put on prime-time "news magazines," which really are a misnomer -- they're basically non-fiction entertainment magazines. And so you get the idea: in order to attract an audience, in order to attract advertisers which follow the audience, instead of presenting hard news about government and about finance and about international affairs, we focus more on the entertainment aspects of news. And so it has been moving in that direction.

There also has been a consolidation of ownership which you touched on a minute ago, and as we begin to talk about this new digital age, it's a recurring problem, namely that more and more outlets fall into fewer and fewer hands.

That's absolutely true. You have, again, a paradoxical situation, where we get many, many more channels, many more news outlets on the air, owned by fewer and fewer multimedia global corporations. Where news used to be the major centerpiece of a broadcast operation, it's now very minor and relatively insignificant in terms of the balance sheet of Time Warner, Turner, Disney, ABC, Viacom, CBS, GE, NBC. News is just a small player in those companies. So the whole set of priorities and focus becomes very different. While you get many more channels that you can tune in to see news happening, what is happening now is you get fewer and fewer news-gathering operations. They're all feeding off of the same syndicated news reporting services. And one of the consequences of that is the misreporting of election night, because instead of having every network do its own analysis of the voting returns, for example, they pooled the coverage, they had one voter news service reporting, and that was mistaken, and they all fell into the same trap.

Your background tells the story of movement from the commercial world to the public sector and back again. I'm curious how the experience in one realm informs your experience in the other realm. What can public television learn from the marketplace of commercial television?

I have great respect for both sides. I think the big problem we have is that people don't really understand the difference. They expect corporations to serve public needs even at the sacrifice of the bottom line. Corporations are being judged on how much money they make for their stockholders, and that's the way they should be judged. And so while they have, of course, public responsibilities -- when you have a terrible crises like the World Trade Center bombing, you know, you wipe out commercials, and you don't think of the financial consequences because there are other things far more important, even though you're a commercial enterprise -- but nonetheless, if you're a commercial enterprise, your job is to make money, not to serve the public interest in its broadest sense on a continuing basis.

Public television, in its need to raise money, has been more and more market-driven. We'll put on any shows that "will get viewers to contribute to support public television," because we haven't figured out other ways to do it. It's supposed to be non-commercial, but there are commercials -- it's called "underwriting support" on public television. And somehow or other, the two have to learn what their priorities are, and we, as a public, have to understand what to expect from them. There is a need for a noncommercial public freeway on the "information superhighway" to provide the critically important elements in our culture -- in our civic information, in education, in health information -- that the marketplace is not going to support. For us to expect that the marketplace will provide all of that is a big mistake. So I think it's a matter of defining what the roles of each should be.

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