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Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way.

Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way. Ken Auletta. Random House, $25. Billionaire Larry Tisch tells a top CBS executive he can't order a bagel at the Beverly Hills Hotel because it costs too much. NBC program guru Brandon Tartikoff muses that it may just be time "to bring voluptuous women back to network television." ABC President Fred Pierce secretly puts a Hollywood psychic on the payroll to help pick hits.

Auletta's new book on the networks is filled with magic moments like these. And this cornucopia of stories and facts, combined with a capable explanation of the economic forces changing television, makes Three Blind Mice a tour de force of reporting and an example of what business journalism should be. So why is everyone complaining?

The overnight verdict on Auletta's book is that it's longwinded and underedited. Hogwash. Sure, you could cut 50 or 100 of its 600 pages and no one would notice. But the same is true of any Dickens novel. When a book's ambition is to paint an entire industry, there must be at its heart a supreme effort of reporting and, equally important, a bias to err on the side of inclusion. Every business--not just "glamorous" ones like television--has its Dickensian story waiting to be spun. Ambitious journalists with the stamina to unearth them should eye Auletta's example and find their own lode to mine.

In Auletta's case, all the data builds to pretty damaging effect. If you already thought network news basically consisted of blow-dried video stenography, Auletta proves you weren't jaded enough. Imagine you're a network owner who must cut costs to survive. The news division's budget, you learn, has tripled between 1978 and 1987, from $100 to $300 million. As a result, the division is now losing more than $50 million per year. Meanwhile, CNN is putting on 24 hours of news daily (compared to the networks's 3 to 4 hours) at one third of your annual cost and is making a healthy profit to boot. Rational people presented with these facts know there's room to cut--with no impact on "quality."

Even if they lack other skills, network news organizations are geniuses at publicizing any threat to their bureaucracy and controlling the spin on their own stories. After all, that's their business. Thus they succeed in peddling the preposterous myth that any attempt to make the network news run efficiently actually threatens the workings of democracy itself.

Auletta's reporting reveals how hollow this claim really is. Consider this: None of the networks conducted any internal post-mortem on their vacuous campaign coverage in 1988. ABC has difficulty getting correspondents to volunteer for "American Agenda" pieces because it means giving up a nightly fix of airtime to prepare longer, more substantive segments. And what about Dan Rather's famous walk off the set, which resulted in CBS going dark for six minutes and was billed internally as a protest over some serious threat to "news values"? That's true only if you think postponing footage of the Pope's visit to Miami in favor of the finale of a tennis match could have undermined the republic.
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Author:Miller, Matthew
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1991
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