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Watchdogs Howl Over ABC/CNN

No one thought (or thinks) that forging a merger between ABC News and CNN would be easy to accomplish, especially those trying to put it together. Indeed, some insiders say it is, without a doubt, the most complicated news joint venture ever attempted. And, last week, one source familiar with the situation said the talks have cooled down considerably and the likelihood of a deal on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the highest, now stands at about a "two or a three."

Moreover, getting to the point where the two parties agree to a signed contract may just be the beginning of the struggle to actually make it happen. Opposition is mounting on the outside. Public-interest groups are threatening to take legal action. ABC affiliates hate the idea and worry that it will dilute the ABC News brand. And ABC News rank-and-file workers fear for their jobs.

Jeffrey Chester, head of the Washington-based Center for Digital Democracy, says an ABC-CNN deal would be a public-interest travesty, and he calls it "an unholy alliance that could only make sense to cost-cutters." If the two sides get to the point of merger, he says, he'll try to persuade the Federal Trade Commission, the Justice Department and various state attorneys general to investigate and kill it on antitrust grounds.

"We're not about to sleep while Peter Jennings and Ted Koppel get sold off as chattel. Michael Eisner should know that Washington, D.C., is not Disneyland," says Chester. "He doesn't hand out the tickets here. This is more than [David] Letterman replacing [Ted] Koppel. The public may soon lose what many believe is the best of the broadcast news operations."

Murdoch Likes It

News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch isn't losing sleep over the proposed merger. News Corp. owns Fox News Channel, the CNN and ABC competitor that regularly beats MSNBC and, of late, CNN as well in the ratings.

In fact, Murdoch would like to see it happen. "I think it would be great," he told reporters last week after the Fox Entertainment Group annual meeting in New York. "I think it would weaken both of them by diluting their brands."

That's what worries the ABC affiliates, too. "This didn't seem to start because they were looking for ways to strengthen network news product," says Bruce Baker, executive vice president, Cox Broadcasting and chairman of the ABC TV affiliates advisory board. Not that the network actually asked him, or any other affiliate board member, for advice on the matter. But that has not stopped Baker and other station executives from expressing their concerns to ABC executives, at least informally.

"The ABC News brand is one of the strong brands that remains intact within the ABC Network," says Baker. "Something that waters that down and confuses that brand in our markets is of big concern to us, and this proposed merger goes right to the heart of that." The thought of cross-promoting CNN on their stations doesn't go over too well either, he adds.

At some point soon, the affiliate board may take formal action on the matter. "So far, we have not wanted to overreact," Baker says. "But we don't want the network to misread our being silent right now as an indication that we're supportive. I think they know of our concerns, but we will probably have to be more proactive in expressing our thoughts."

ABC sources stress that the merger isn't just about cost cuts, despite widespread perceptions to the contrary. "First and foremost," says one insider, "this is about creating an aggressive, powerful, world-beating news organization."

A little too powerful in Chester's opinion. He called on the big-name talent at both networks to oppose the concentration of control, reduced news budgets and loss of jobs. "They know this is not healthy for democracy."

Jennings is open

ABC newsman Jennings is keeping an open mind, for now. He says that, when he got a call a year ago "from the people at CNN, asking would I oppose such a thing, I said no." He told a Milwaukee newspaper two weeks ago that "it's being discussed at the corporate level, the legal level, the union level, I'm guessing at every level including, but not by any means exclusive to, the journalistic level. My sense is that, [when] they sort out at the top whether they can make a successful corporate marriage, then I think we can talk about whether or not we can make a successful journalistic marriage."

Others at the networks involved insist that the merger is not intended to change the on-air look or talent of either of the networks involved. It's more about newsgathering and production and, certainly, doing both in the most efficient way possible. "Diane [Sawyer] and Barbara [Walters] aren't going to suddenly have shows on CNN," says one source.

What might happen is that a big scoop that ABC's John McWethy gets early in the day might get reported on CNN before it airs on World News Tonight. But issues like that would be decided case by case.

While Jennings says he remains open to the idea, others remain steadfastly opposed. The potential deal "unquestionably presents a tradeoff between genuine diversity and efficiency," says Andrew Schwartzman, president of Media Access Project. "Maybe there are economies that justify consolidation, but you're left with one voice instead of two. The root of the problem is that notion that, if Wall Street's unhappy with your performance, news is a great place to cut costs. If the FCC was enforcing its public-interest obligations, the companies would look elsewhere to cut."

New York University media professor Mark Crispin Miller says the proposed venture is "a bad thing. We need more voices, not fewer. The press is the only private institution the founders included in the Constitution for protection. But the press is now enthralled to its advertisers and to its own parent companies," he says, and the expanding interests of media companies make it "enthralled to the government as well."

Defining Diversity

But the networks may define diversity more narrowly than their critics. CNN chief Walter Isaacson told CNBC recently, "I think that there's so much diversity in the way we cover things on CNN and diversity in the voices they have on ABC, I don't think ABC has been a direct competitor of CNN. So it doesn't knock out one of our competitors."

Insiders insist that high-priced production talent at ABC wouldn't be targeted for elimination after a merger with CNN. But what happens to the hundreds of technicians that make up the core membership of NABET and writers and others who belong to AFTRA remains to be seen.

The unions confirm that many of their members are clearly worried about layoffs. A merger would mean lost jobs. But, like the merger itself, how deep those cuts would be remains uncertain.