The New Kids on the Cbs Block Try to Put Their Show on the Map
updated 05/12/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 05/12/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT
When West 57th debuted in a six-week broadcast last August, critics were sharply divided. The Washington Post raved that the show would "drag television into the 21st century." But the New York Times slammed it as all pictures and no information, a "supermarket tabloid set to music." Within the CBS News broadcast headquarters that gives West 57th its Manhattan address, the show was lamented by some as a glitzy nail in the coffin of the network's lofty traditions. "It's not serious journalism by any stretch of the imagination," said former CBS News President William Leonard.
The design of the show certainly has been given serious attention. West 57th's opening is as arresting as a music video. To the riff of a saxophone theme song, attractive young reporters—Jane Wallace, Meredith Vieira, John Ferrugia and Bob Sirott—rush in from their globe-trotting assignments like stars of a journalistic Mod Squad. "I'm tired of TV magazine shows that are patterned after books," explains Andy Lack, 38, the energetic creator and executive producer of West 57th. "We're showing how broadcast journalists work, with cameras and lights and microphones." Instead of neatly packaged narration, the show offers often-gripping footage. "You don't need statistics and experts to tell every story," says Ferrugia.
The new show, however, wants to have at least one thing in common with its bookish predecessors. It's an attempt to repeat the magic of CBS' 60 Minutes, the TV newsmagazine that premiered to low ratings 18 years ago and then soared to the Nielsen top 10, where it now ticks off some $70 million in profits each year.
The networks have tried some 20 magazine shows—like American Almanac and Closeup—since 60 Minutes rang the bell. Although West 57th's ratings were not much higher than two recent summer series by Charles Kuralt and Bill Moyers, CBS executives (citing positive viewer research) are spending $350,000 a week to send West 57th into the breach.
From all the criticism of the show's style and content, one might think West 57th's correspondents were actors who were doing soap commercials the day before yesterday. In fact, with the exception of Sirott, a 36-year-old former deejay from Chicago, they're all veterans of the CBS Evening News. Ferrugia, 35, was a White House correspondent. Jane Wallace, 31, reported from Central America. And Meredith Vieira, 32, briefly covered the 1984 presidential campaign. (Producer Lack earned 10 Emmys as executive producer of CBS Reports.) They're bugged by all the talk of a new generation at CBS News. "We were reporters yesterday, we're reporters today, and we'll be reporters tomorrow," asserts Ferrugia.
Cast by Lack for their "first-rate skills and broad interests," the four also seem to complement each other personally. Ferrugia looks like a Wall Street broker in ever-present suspenders; with his long curly hair and mellow manner, Sirott resembles a veejay more than a network newshound. Vieira is soft-spoken; Wallace is irreverent and warm, sort of an '80s version of Rosalind Russell as a reporter in His Girl Friday.
Jane proved herself in Central America (In 1983 she was the first to report that the CIA had mined a Nicaraguan harbor). But her craziest combat duty was her 1984 stint on the CBS Morning News, where, along with Vieira, she tried out on-air for the co-anchor job that eventually went to 1971 Miss America Phyllis George. "I had come straight from El Salvador with two shirts and two pairs of khaki culottes," recalls Wallace, laughing, "and suddenly I'm supposed to come up with nylon stockings, hard shoes and five outfits a week. I was getting up at 1 a.m. every weekday and going on a shop-till-you-drop on Saturday." Having survived hepatitis and parasites in the jungle, she got mononucleosis in the morning-news wars. Wallace enjoyed the spontaneity of live TV, but her salty tongue got her in trouble. One day on a Morning News mike that she thought was off, she unwittingly said "bulls—t." "Of course I apologized," she says. "I'm colorful but not mannerless."
Wallace's father is a hospital administrator and her mother runs a computerized system to track cancer cures. Jane was born in St. Paul, Minn, and studied political science at Yale. She got the broadcast bug during an internship at WTOP-TV in Washington, D.C. "The minute I walked into the newsroom," she says, "I knew I was home."
She worked at stations in New Haven, Denver and, finally, New York. Along the way she was asked out on a "date" to a murder-suicide site by one colleague and seriously told by one station manager that he didn't hire reporters with IQs over 100. "If you listen to every piece of discouragement in this business, you might as well pack it in," she declares. She joined CBS News as a correspondent in 1981.
Wallace, who lives in a beachside Miami condo she bought during her two years in Central America, says she'd like to settle down. "I refuse to believe I have to choose between marriage and career."
Meredith Vieira has a knack for drawing out subjects, from molested children to Vietnam veterans. For the first installment of West 57th, she focused on a 9-year-old boy and the social conditions pushing him toward delinquency. "On this show, you're allowed to care in a piece," says Vieira, who writes many of her own scripts.
A family doctor's daughter, Vieira was born in Providence and graduated with a degree in English from Tufts University in 1975. She worked as a news announcer at radio stations in her hometown and Worcester, Mass. before being hired by CBS News as a Chicago-based reporter in 1982.
Her fiancé, Richard Cohen, a CBS News political producer, is "unbelievably supportive" of her work, she says. "We find ourselves frustrated over our travel. If you're going to have a relationship, at some point you have to be in the same city." They're trying. The two are renovating a brownstone on New York's West Side and plan to be married this summer.
As the second-string White House correspondent (behind Lesley Stahl and Bill Plante), John Ferrugia traveled to South America, Japan and Korea with President Reagan. "It was exciting," he says, "but West 57th was too interesting to turn down." The son of a food broker, Ferrugia was born in Fulton, Mo. After graduating from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1975, he worked as a reporter for a Tampa TV station and did investigative reporting for the CBS affiliate in Kansas City. That work brought him to the attention of CBS News. He was hired for the network's Washington bureau in 1980 and went on the White House beat in 1982.
A regular on the New York-Washington shuttle, Ferrugia commutes from a Georgetown town house, where he lives with his wife of 11 years, Mona, 35, and their 5-month-old son, Jonathan. A consultant for historical preservation projects, Mona was John's high school sweetheart. He's still smitten. "Everyone has to be egotistical about his marriage," he says, "but mine's the greatest."
"I never dreamed of being Dan Rather," says Bob Sirott. As a child in Chicago, West 57th's life-style reporter saw himself as a radio announcer for the Chicago Cubs. "I'd go to sleep listening to the play-by-play of my idol, an announcer named Jack Quinlan," he recalls. "At the games, I'd roll up my scorecard and stick it in my friend's ear to 'announce' the game." While he was still a journalism student at Columbia College in Chicago, Sirott got a job as a page at a radio station. Working his way up from making coffee, he first went on the air during a strike in 1966. He was hired as a deejay by a local radio station in 1977 and quickly became a popular personality. "I was doing drive-time stuff to AM rock 'n' roll, but I would mix it up with humor." Before coming to West 57th he was the pop-culture reporter for WBBM-TV for five years.
Sirott still lives in Chicago, in an 80-year-old house with his wife, Carrie Cochran, 35. A former anchorwoman who worked with Sirott on several specials, Cochran has temporarily retired from TV while the couple renovates their new old digs. But, says Sirott, his wife is his cultural barometer, pointing him to stars like John Cougar Mellencamp and encouraging him to research his stories. "From radio," he admits, "I have a tendency to wing it."
As they prepare a slew of stories, from an investigation in the Philippines to a profile of Sylvester Stallone's bodyguards, the foursome of West 57th claims to have no designs on 60 Minutes-size stardom. "When I look at those guys, I think, 'What am I doing here?' " says Ferrugia. They say they just want to go on with the show, without an internecine fight. "When you think about it," says producer Lack, "what we're trying to do is take the place of some sitcom you've never heard of. I think the effort to engage people in a serious way ought to be applauded." In other words, the viewers will determine whether West 57th is really addressed for success.