Rather at Eye through 2002

Newsman to remain at CBS thru 2002

NEW YORK — Dan Rather has reupped at CBS News, extending his current contract an additional three years, to 2002, with a significant pay hike to roughly $6.5 million per.

His counterpart at ABC, Peter Jennings, also has quietly signed for an additional three years, keeping him in the Alphabet’s anchor chair until mid-year 2000, sources said. With Tom Brokaw’s long-term NBC pact sealed over the summer (Daily Variety, July 25), all three network anchors are now sewn up for several seasons, thwarting an effort by CNN to secure one of them to bolster its own cable news operation. CNN had negotiated with Brokaw and made overtures to Rather, who already was on the hook until 1999, but came up empty-handed.

Rather’s signing, which the anchor confirmed Monday, comes at an auspicious time for the Eye web. Though it remains in third place in the evening news race, CBS has clawed its way much closer to No. 2 ABC, whose audience has eroded considerably. “NBC Nightly News,” which won last season for the first time in a decade, continues to add viewers. But for the season to date, just seven-tenths of a rating point separates NBC from CBS, a margin nearly equal in the key 25-to-54 news demo.

NBC has a 7.9 rating and a 17 household share for the six weeks ended Oct. 31, compared with a 7.6/17 for ABC and a 7.2/15 for CBS. Last season, ABC led with an 8.1/17, NBC trailed with a 7.7/17 and CBS lagged with a 6.9/16. CBS is beginning to benefit from its older core audience, which happens to include the most avid news consumers; the average network newscast viewer is 55, and news is sold against the 25-to-54 demos.

The good news is that in contrast to primetime, total nightly newscast viewership is up slightly this season, after a period of steady decline.

Rather credits a steady focus on hard news and international coverage for CBS’ upswing, although many have seen those as viewer turn-offs in an age of what Rather called the “dumbing down and sleazing up” of newscasts. (He wouldn’t point a finger in any particular direction, but it’s assumed the reference is to NBC, which has scored major gains on “Nightly News” and “Dateline NBC” with a softer mix of news and well-packaged features.)

“I have no illusions about it,” Rather told Daily Variety. “It’s bound to go up and down like one of those Wall Street graphs. But the portents look good for us; the barometer’s rising.”

“NBC took the lead basically by being very conscious of tailoring its content to the demographics it was targeting,” said Andrew Tyndall, president of ADT Research, which monitors network news. “ABC for the moment is going for numbers,” aping NBC with more lifestyle features aimed at specific segments like seniors. “CBS is distinguishing itself at the moment as being the hard newscast.”

Rather’s own barometer is up, as well. His ironclad contract with CBS already extended until mid-1999, but the Eye vet — who earned his reputation covering the Kennedy assassination and Watergate for CBS — heard the sound of a reported $7 million in coin dangled by CNN, desperate to snare a big-ticket anchor to more firmly establish itself as a major news player, and not just in times of crisis.

Although Rather has some detractors in the CBS camp, the network had no heir apparent to turn to anyway, and his loyalty paid off: The three-year extension raises his salary immediately from about $4.5 million into the $6 million-to-$7 million range, the neighborhood occupied by his counterparts.

“It’s always nice to be wanted,” said Rather, who, like his counterparts, refused to discuss contract terms.

Jennings’ renewal of his own contract, which expired in August, gives him a small increase, leaving his payday still at about $7 million, but adds several perks, including some additional vacation time.

Brokaw got $7 million for a longer, five-year commitment, plus stock options in NBC parent General Electric Co., which put the total value of his package close to $8 million.

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