Abc, Cbs, Nbc: S.O.S.


By Ken Auletta

Random House - 642pp - $25

Talk about how the mighty have fallen. Entering the 1980s, CBS, NBC, and ABC were more than multibillion-dollar businesses. The television networks were the three pillars of the national electronic church at whose flickering altars more than 75 million Americans worshipped nightly. But in the middle of the decade, all three were humbled: They were taken over by new corporate owners, besieged by new competitors, and abandoned by much of their audience.

Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way is Ken Auletta's chronicle of this cataclysm. It is a tour de force of reporting, if not of writing or of analysis. Virtually everyone who mattered, inside and outside of the networks, talked to Auletta in interviews that began in 1985. He sat in on sales meetings, gatherings of network affiliates, and sessions in which Hollywood producers pitched ideas for new series. And he seems to have read everything on the subject, from press clippings to minutes of CBS board meetings.

What emerges is an often dramatic inside account of Capital Cities Communications' friendly takeover of ABC; General Electric's purchase of RCA, the parent of NBC; and Laurence A. Tisch's "creeping takeover" of CBS. In detailing these events, Auletta reconstructs conversations and often attempts to climb inside the minds of participants. But unlike most such efforts, which smack of invention, Auletta's narrative has the heft of credibility. His reconstructions are rigorously sourced, with detailed notes. And where he has received two versions of, say, what General Electric Chief Executive John F. Welch Jr. said to then-President of NBC News Larry Grossman at a 1986 dinner, he provides an explanatory footnote.

Most readers, though, will probably wish that a few people had refused to talk to Auletta or that he had read a little bit less or had slept through some meetings. At 642 pages, Three Blind Mice contains vastly more than you're likely to want to know. Both profound and relatively trivial events are presented in the same indiscriminate detail. How Tisch blindsided CBS Inc. Chairman Thomas H. Wyman is the stuff of intrigue. How Kim LeMasters succeeded Bud Grant as head of CBS Entertainment is, by now, probably intriguing only to LeMasters and Grant.

But ignore the irrelevancies, and Three Blind Mice contains some pretty impressive stuff. Auletta seems to have had particularly good access to CBS--where the tale is also inherently juicier. The chapter in which Tisch closes his grip on the network is dynamite, packed with vivid information on Tisch's struggle with the board and his power play with William S. Paley to oust Wyman.

The heart of Three Blind Mice, though, lies in what happened after the nets changed hands. Here, describing the culture clashes at each company, Auletta again provides much--probably too much--rich detail. He depicts the new owners as discovering, at all three networks, ossified courts of profligate mandarins who ignored the looming threats of cable, syndicated TV, and VCRs. In turn, the nets--particularly the news divisions--saw themselves as public trusts under assault by bean counters.

Who pays the piper calls the tune, of course, so the network priesthood was ultimately broken to the wills of the new owners. ABC was recast by the cheerful, small-town boosterism of Cap Cities. NBC was swallowed by the hard-charging corpocracy of GE. And, in the darkest vision of the three, CBS was slashed and shrunk by Tisch, the fish-cold trader.

The new network parents cut costs and improved efficiencies. But what they couldn't do was stop the upheavals transforming the industry as audiences fragmented, media outlets proliferated, and advertising evaporated. Auletta rightly chastises the networks' old guard for being blind to these changes. But he also criticizes the new masters for their blindness to what made the network business special, for often being unwilling to invest in programming, and for blurring the lines between news and entertainment. "The new owners . . . helped awaken the networks to the encroaching earthquake," he writes. "In this, they were right. But . . . in their haste to impose a new order, to defend shareholder rights, sometimes they failed to see the unintended damage to their investment and to their public trust."

Ultimately, Auletta writes, the networks have sharply diverged in ways determined by the roots of each new owner. Because "the GE culture was shaped by a belief in technology," NBC is rushing to link up with ventures in cable, direct-broadcast satellites, and high-definition TV. Tisch the trader has pared CBS down to its broadcasting core, which he sees as a mature business where costs will continue to be cut.

Because Cap Cities was already a broadcaster before acquiring ABC and so was dedicated to the values of both broadcasting and business, it comes off best in Auletta's eyes. Cap Cities, he believes, managed to transform the culture at ABC while preserving many of its virtues. "It was this impression of balance that both shaped the new culture at ABC and created a sense among broadcasters and others that ABC was the network to watch."

None of this, however, will be enough to avoid still more upheavals. Eventually, Auletta believes, one or more of the nets may abandon news altogether--or may even cease to exist. Three Blind Mice offers an exhaustive view of how the mighty networks have come to face such once-unthinkable prospects.

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