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January 14, 2005
Moonves Tips His Hand

Dan Rather escaped punishment for the Killian memo fraud he helped foist on CBS' viewing public, as well as his part in the cover-up afterwards -- or at least we thought he did. Now CBS chairman Les Moonves, the man who supposedly saved Rather, reveals that Rather's next safe haven might wind up being nothing more than the exit door:

As much as he would like to recover from the blows his reputation has suffered recently, Dan Rather may not have a chance to work very long on the program that he expected would be his next professional address.

The future of CBS's "60 Minutes Wednesday" - the program that broadcast Mr. Rather's report, now discredited, about President Bush's National Guard record - is in doubt, both the top CBS executive and the program's new executive producer acknowledged yesterday.

Leslie Moonves, the chairman of CBS and co-president of the network's parent company, Viacom, said in a telephone interview that Mr. Rather was expected to continue his career at CBS on the Wednesday edition of "60 Minutes" after he steps down as the network's primary anchor in March. But Mr. Moonves added the phrase, "provided the show continues."

The program is guaranteed to be on the air through May, when the current television season ends, Mr. Moonves said, but "they are not exactly tearing it up in the ratings over there."

Even Jeff Fager, the executive producer of Rather's refuge, talks about the damage the Killian memos did to his show, noting "we're stuck with that," hardly words of optimism from the show's leader. Viewership declined 17% from the previous year and against ABC's sci-fi hit Lost, shows little hope of recovering. Of course, it's hardly breaking news that CBS News gets lousy ratings for anything except the original 60 Minutes -- which calls into question why Rather wasn't offered a post on his old show instead.

Moonves could not have been unaware of the struggles at the disgraced show when he pushed Rather into leaving the anchor chair a year earlier than planned. (Reportedly, Rather had wanted to wait until his 25th anniversary in March 2006.) Also, in retrospect, the decision to return Rather to the scene of the crime as his next assignment appears strange, to say the least. Rather and 60 Minutes Wednesday will always be linked together by the scandal, and his regular appearances on the show will constantly remind viewers of the abortive smear job attempted by Rather, CBS, and the show's production team.

But, hey, Dan could always do some work on his old show if this one folds, right? Well ...

Asked last evening if Mr. Rather would simply shift all his future work to the Sunday edition should the Wednesday program be canceled, Mr. Moonves replied, "Dan is under contract to CBS News." He added that Mr. Rather "will be doing assignments on '60 Minutes Wednesday' and other assignments on other magazine shows that come up."

One issue with Mr. Rather's moving to Sunday may be how unhappy the staff there is that the "60 Minutes" name was damaged by association with the discredited report. One of the program's top producers said last night that many of the staff members were angry about the report.

Folding the Wednesday show leaves Rather short on options, in other words. As the controversy continues to bubble on the retention of Rather and Andrew Heyward by Moonves, the latter will come under greater pressure to dump the duo. One wonders if Moonves didn't always see a 60 Minutes Wednesday cancellation as a face-saving way to take care of the most public problem.

If I were Fager and the rest of the staff at 60MW, I'd start brushing up the resums.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 14, 2005 5:32 AM

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