Nbc Played Hardball to Sign Tom Brokaw for Nightly News—and There Is No Joy in Mudd-Ville
07/13/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT
In the executive suites of Manhattan's Network Row, the supersecret negotiations for Today host Tom Brokaw stirred up a maelstrom of speculation. On the set of Today, Brokaw's moods were read like tea leaves. If he seemed cheery or expressed interest in improving the set, co-anchor Jane Pauley and weatherman Willard Scott would exchange knowing winks, sure the bosses were in handshaking distance of a contract renewal with him. If he seemed tired, it was credited to one of ABC President Roone Arledge's legendary all-night courtship sessions. Around the question of Brokaw's fate swirled the hopes and fears of a legion of would-be successors on Today—and of those he could displace by moving on, among them the biggest names in network news. CBS's offer apparently included a berth on 60 Minutes and perhaps the anchor of a forthcoming weekly afternoon spin-off, Up to the Minute. ABC reportedly dangled a World News Tonight anchor spot and untold other enticements.
"The drama of this episode should be an NBC series this fall," says Jane Pauley, who learned of Brokaw's decision to stay at the network—in a nightly anchor spot—in last Tuesday's New York Times. "At one point I would have bet the family farm he would go to CBS, then I was sure it was ABC. Last week it seemed clear he wasn't packing his bags, but this week he was so mysterious and dark I thought ABC had offered him the crown, robe and scepter. Now I feel he abdicated for the woman he loved."
Brokaw has spent his professional life at NBC, but taking a multiyear contract to anchor Nightly News for more than $1 million annually could hardly be considered an act of love alone. Brokaw was, in fact, a most demanding suitor, elbowing his way into a share of John Chancellor's chair with Roger Mudd, whose furious departure from CBS when Dan Rather aced him out may have been hastened by a promise from NBC that he would get the job when Chancellor left it. Now, thanks to Brokaw, Chancellor will haul anchor next April. Mudd, 53, has cause to be livid, having been rolled over twice by top-money eager beavers younger than he is. The gap between his estimated $900,000 salary and 41-year-old Brokaw's may well be equalized by a cash settlement with NBC to accept a co-anchor. But by at least one report Brokaw held out to the end for billing over Mudd. "Brokaw won," says an intimate of the parties. "It will be known as the Brokaw-Mudd Report." Says another source close to the conflict: "Brokaw is now king of the mountain."
If so, he was put there by an expert: Thornton Bradshaw, the new chief executive officer and chairman of NBC's parent conglomerate, RCA. Even before his first board meeting last week, Bradshaw had solved the Brokaw problem—and had given NBC President Fred Silverman his long-awaited pink slip, choosing as his replacement Grant Tinker, former husband of Mary Tyler Moore and head of the vastly successful production company (Lou Grant, WKRP) that bears her initials, MTM Enterprises. In paying off the last 18 months of Silverman's estimated $1 million-plus-per-year contract, Bradshaw replaced a lifelong inside man with an executive of broader gauge. Newsman Brokaw, for one, is a believer in Bradshaw's plan. "The arrival of Thornton Bradshaw at RCA," he says, "was a major factor in my decision to stay."
Born in Pickstown, S.Dak., Brokaw first joined KMTV in Omaha in 1962 and continued with the network outlets in Atlanta (one year), L.A. (seven) and Washington (three). After the death of Frank McGee in 1974, Brokaw was considered as a Today replacement but lost out to Jim Hartz when he refused to do commercials. In 1976, still refusing, Brokaw succeeded Hartz, who was made a traveling co-host. Since then the alarm has buzzed at 4 a.m. five days a week in the Park Avenue co-op Brokaw shares with wife Meredith and their three daughters. That aside, he says, "There has always been a terrific resistance to leaving NBC. There was the investment of my professional and personal time over 19 years that I wanted to see pay off."
Attention now turns to the hopefuls for his spot on Today. Handicappers rate Lloyd Dobbins highly, but Dobbins says his money is on Mike Wallace's son, Chris, who has excelled filling in on Today. So, on the other hand, have Jim Palmer, Garrick Utley and Jessica Savitch. Some think no one will replace Brokaw, that the other regulars' roles will be upgraded.
There was enough grist left in those what-ifs to feed several dozen ulcers among the talents and agents of Network Row, but if the set of Today last Tuesday morning was any indication, Chairman Bradshaw's rout of the Brokaw talent raid would becalm them at least for a while. "Thornton Bradshaw will be the secret weapon," exulted Willard Scott, as the Today staff gathered round a stock of champagne and orange juice. Agreed Gene Shalit: "I was so happy when Tom told me that I hugged him—and then he threatened to leave again."