Taking the Heat for Sagging Ratings, CBS Anchor Dan Rather Is Toughing It Out in Last Place

UPDATED 08/10/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/10/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT

Striding into a meeting with senior producers of the CBS Evening News, Dan Rather had an announcement to make. "I've agreed to a double anchor," he said gravely. "She's a striking blonde." At this point, according to a witness, "jaws were dropping round the table. Everyone thought he was talking about Diane Sawyer." But no, Rather wasn't finished. Continuing in a deadpan, end-of-the-world tone, he announced, "She owns most of the world's resources in mascara. Her name is—Tammy Faye Bakker."

The joke, which was Rather's way of lightly debunking the rumor that Sawyer might soon be foisted on him as a co-anchor, provided the beleaguered star and his staff with some welcome relief from the heat. After more than four years as the Nielsen-crowned king of TV news, the 55-year-old Rather is learning about the downside of gravity. Bounced last spring from its accustomed place at the top by Tom Brokaw and his NBC Nightly News, Rather's show has now skidded into third place, behind Peter Jennings and the ABC World News Tonight. Last month the CBS Evening News drew its worst ratings in more than 20 years.

The man at the center of the storm isn't ignoring it. "I don't like to get knocked down," admits the fiercely competitive Rather. "But if it's a knockdown, you'd better get back up. Anybody who knows me knows I'm a stayer."

Some critics and television news analysts believe he may be trying too hard already. Though widely acknowledged as an outstanding television journalist, Rather has seemed unusually on edge of late. "No matter what people say about journalism, it's the anchor that makes the difference to the average viewer," says a rival news executive. "People want to be informed, but they also want to be comfortable, and Rather doesn't do that. His face seems strained and his voice rises in pitch."

Although the former White House correspondent has been praised for his performance during the Iran-contra hearings, he has at times seemed to be pressing. During an interview with former CIA director William Colby, for instance, he brought up the bizarre rumor that one of Colby's successors, the late William Casey, might still be alive. "I attended his funeral," replied Colby. Somewhat awkwardly, Rather persisted: "He's dead, no question?"

When Rather, the Watergate inquisitor, tries to project the warmth of his predecessor, Walter Cronkite, the effect can be jarring as well. Some of Rather's stylistic devices—such as "Ready, set, Gorbachev!" and his cheerleading sign-off, "Courage!"—have been ridiculed by TV reviewers. Those who know Rather well say that the strain of the ratings is showing. "Dan is a very intense person who can't hide his feelings," says correspondent Richard Threlkeld, a longtime colleague now with ABC. "When he's under enormous pressure, as he is now, it shows on the air."

Rather's faltering popularity leaves him vulnerable to the bottom-line instincts of a formidable new boss. Since taking control of the network, real estate magnate Laurence Tisch has slashed costs dramatically and, in so doing, has curtailed Rather's power. Tisch is said to resent both Rather's $2.5 million salary and the anchorman's criticism of Tisch's spending cutbacks. "Why do I have to pay the No. 1 salary to the No. 2 anchorman?" Tisch has been quoted as grumbling. The CBS chief has denied making that remark, adding, "Dan is the bedrock of CBS." But he may not have the patience to stay with Rather through a prolonged spell in the ratings cellar.

Speculation on possible successors has concentrated on the avuncular Charles Kuralt or 60 Minutes' Sawyer, a Tisch favorite whose $1.2 million salary was personally approved by the headman. Sawyer is said to have been promised an anchor slot someday, yet sources say that Rather previously turned down a feeler that he accept her as co-anchor. The drawing power of a Sawyer-Rather combo is untested and Rather is in no rush to experiment. "If somebody convinced me it would be better for the broadcast, I'd accept a co-anchor, Diane or somebody else," he says.

Given the money and prestige invested in Rather, CBS is unlikely to change anytime soon. In fact, network officials are steadfastly defending their champion. Downplaying Rather's responsibility for ratings erosion, network spokesmen cite NBC's wide lead in prime time and the volatility of summer ratings. "There's no doubt it's a close race, but Dan is as strong as ever," says news president Howard Stringer. "We have no plans to add any co-anchor."

At the "fishbowl" where the Evening News is produced in New York, the mood is calm but combative. Off-camera, Rather has retained the courtly, self-effacing manner that endears him to his staff. In his office is an embroidered pillow bearing the words, "Always is not forever"—a sagely skeptical motto that may explain his fatalism about the perennial ratings wars. "I think we're doing the best broadcast today, and we're going to keep on doing the best reporting," he says. "That's what lasts in this business. The rest is seashells and smoke."

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