BOB GARFIELD: We are back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Normally when stories about the salaries of network anchors hit the media, and they often do, we at OTM maintain a judicious silence. But the salary headlines this week are different, and we asked back our old pal J. Max Robins, columnist for TV Guide, to explains the why's and wherefores. Hi Max.
MAX ROBINS: Hi, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So it seems that this time the money is actually shrinking. ABC has demanded that Peter Jennings take a pay cut. Why?
MAX ROBINS: First, they want to send a message throughout ABC -- these are tough times; everybody's going to have to take a little bit less, or certainly you're not going to get much more. Even Peter Jennings is vulnerable to that. Another thing's important in this. It really shows that those flagship nightly newscasts are not the real center of these network news divisions that they once were.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:It's interesting, cause all of us have been saying that all along - it looks like the--the sun is setting on the evening newscasts. But still, network anchors always seem like the, the movie stars of news and they've always been paid if not movie star salaries, almost. Peter Jennings was making 10 million before he was asked to take I guess a, a 25 percent pay cut.
MAX ROBINS: They're still stars. They still have a value. However these corporations, and, and make no mistake, the Walt Disney Company owns ABC --they have to send a message to Wall Street too -- that we're going to be fiscally responsible. We're going to invest money where there are areas of growth and we're going to tighten our belt in areas that are mature businesses for us. If the sun is beginning to set on these nightly newscasts, where it's really rising are on the morning shows. I mean The Today Show rocks. It's a-- a huge profit center for NBC. Clears about 200 million dollars a year in profits, Brooke. There you see Katie Couric signed a big deal, worth reportedly about 15 million dollars a year. They just re-signed Matt Lauer, her co-host, for at least 8 million dollars a year. They can justify it because the show makes so much. They can also justify it in what they'd lose if those two personalities left the show.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So the evening newscasts and the evening news anchors aren't necessarily where the news money is, but as NBC's Brian Williams said in, in the L.A. Times not long ago, it isn't the nightly grind that makes the anchors valuable. It's these important single moments like September 11th when they break into program; when they're there as a trusted guide for the nation to hold their hand and keep them informed.
MAX ROBINS: When you have these momentous news events or news days, that's when we sample, that's when we may check out -- if we're a Dan Rather fan, we may check out what Peter Jennings has to offer and decide -- hey! - we like that a little better! And then in the weeks coming after that when things are a little bit more normal, we may check that out. So these men and women who command these superstar salaries -- they're really kind of marketing vehicles.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How important are anchors to the content of their programs.
MAX ROBINS:The anchors have a lot to do with the content. And they really are de facto, and, and two of them in name managing editors of their newscasts, and they have a lot to do with how they cover the news, both for good and ill effect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:We have ABC asking Peter Jennings to take a 25 percent pay cut off of his already kingly salary. You know, we don't shed tears for [LAUGHS] Peter Jennings, but we did nearly have a panic over what happened with Ted Koppel, and it seems to be ABC that is in the vanguard of public expressions that news isn't really that important any more.
MAX ROBINS: Asking Peter Jennings to take a pay cut and kind of behind closed doors asking correspondents, producers, down the line to take pay cuts really speaks to no real strong commitment to news there. It's, it's a network where their news division has increasingly become news packagers as opposed to news gatherers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And in this are they significantly different from NBC or CBS?
MAX ROBINS:CBS is in a similar situation. They have continued to contract as a news organization. That's why you often hear about either ABC or CBS forming some kind of a joint venture with the C--CNN. They're significantly different from NBC in that NBC invested heavily in expanding in news with MSNBC and CNBC and cable and that was a way for them to amortize their costs. ABC and CBS have become much more news packagers as opposed to news gatherers. They're still committed to news, but it's -it's by and large "news lite."
BROOKE GLADSTONE:That's what they used to day about NBC and Tom Brokaw in particular, but actually that at least has the financial backing to maintain itself.
MAX ROBINS: There is a certain irony there -- that NBC is kind of the lightest weight of the bunch if you will, however, they do it successfully and, and it's, it's analogous in a sense to the print world where you can be s-- very successful with a group of magazines, but they may be more about lifestyle than they are about hard news.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well Max, thank you very much.
MAX ROBINS: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Max Robins writes the Robins Report for TV Guide.