Page One

ABC insists Peter Jennings take $3 million pay cut

By Frazier Moore, The Associated Press
Saturday April 27, 2002

NEW YORK — ABC’s need to reverse years of excessive spending by its news division may be prompting the network to ask Peter Jennings to take a substantial pay cut, an industry analyst said Friday. 

ABC doesn’t want to “dismantle the news division or change the personnel as much as have it operate as it is, but at a lower cost,” said Andrew Tyndall, publisher of The Tyndall Report, a weekly newsletter that monitors television network news. 

But another observer urges caution by the network and its corporate parent, the Walt Disney Co. “What ABC does is both substantive in terms of the finances, and symbolic in terms of the commitment that Disney has to ABC News,” said Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at The Poynter Institute, a journalism research center. 

Suffering from down-turns in ratings and revenue, ABC has found its motives discussed in recent weeks as it allowed correspondent Connie Chung to go to CNN and made a failed attempt to lure David Letterman from CBS to displace its late-night news program “Nightline.” 

Now ABC is taking a tough stand with its star anchorman in contract negotiations, according to various published reports. 

Jennings, who reportedly makes $10 million a year, is being asked to accept a $3 million trim as a condition for renewing his contract, which runs out this summer, Newsday reported. 

Tyndall says ABC is mounting “an overall attempt to reverse the excesses of the Roone Arledge era.” Arledge, president of ABC News through much of the 1990s, won big-name news talent from competing networks with lavish salaries. 

This has placed ABC in a jam, Steele agrees. 

“There’s no doubt they’ve got some big-ticket items in terms of their primary anchors and some other key talents,” he said. “It’s not surprising that they might be looking at those multi-million-dollar salaries as one opportunity to adjust the financial equation.” 

ABC is struggling financially, as is its corporate parent, Disney, which this week reported earnings off 51 percent from the second quarter of 2001. 

The network, however, may not want to risk losing one of its most identifiable figures, especially since its evening newscast has enjoyed the largest increase in viewership among the three shows in the past year. “World News Tonight” with Jennings generally ranks second each week to NBC. 

So far ABC News President David Westin has declined to comment other than to say: “We have every hope and expectation that Peter will be our principal anchor for many years to come.” 

Jennings said in a statement: “In more than 30 years, I have never commented on contract negotiations, nor have I negotiated publicly. I see no reason at this time to change.” 

Even if Jennings’ new deal held him at his current pay level, such an agreement would be unusual since, only last December, “Today” anchor Katie Couric signed a contract with NBC that more than doubled her salary to a reported $16 million a year. 

But viewership of morning shows has grown in recent years while viewership of the three evening newscasts has shrunk from three-quarters of the TV audience to less than half. 

Jennings’ fate is likely to be watched closely by all the networks, especially NBC, where “Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw’s contract is also up for renewal this year.