WASHINGTON (November 13, 2006) — Dan Rather has gone digital.Returning to television with “Dan Rather Reports,” his new weekly magazine, he will now be available in just the four million satellite and cable homes reached by media mogul Mark Cuban’s high-definition channel HDNet.
By contrast, “The CBS Evening News,” which Rather anchored for 24 years, reaches virtually all the nation’s 111 million TV homes, and it’s watched by more than seven million viewers nightly.
“We are broadcasting to a tiny audience,” Rather readily acknowledges.
Even so, his new venture is commanding attention beyond the relative handful who will catch its premiere Tuesday at 8 p.m. EST.
Why not? Rather, who in June left CBS News after 44 years, is beginning a new chapter at age 75. From scratch. Lickety-split. And defying everyone who figured whether with regret or glee that he was finished.
Who wouldn’t be wondering if he can pull it off?
Headquarters for his new production company is a small high-rise suite just a block from Times Square. The paint is dry. Furniture and state-of-the-art production equipment are in place. Any further refinements can wait.
“Right now, trying to get this program off the ground, I have about all I can say grace over,” Rather says in his comfortable but no-frills new office, where his own high-def flatscreen (he points out with a chuckle) still isn’t operative.
Not only is his team fewer than two dozen overseen by Rather and executive producer Wayne Nelson focused on opening night, but after that: another 41 weekly hours in the coming year, plus additional documentaries.
Exactly what viewers will see Tuesday won’t be locked down until the last minute, Rather says, with portions likely to be aired live.
“I want us to be right up on the balls of our feet, able to shift in a nanosecond if we have to,” he says, listing three areas to concentrate on: investigative stories, in-depth interviews and “hard-edged field reports.” Favorite subjects are likely to include the nation’s fighting forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic squeeze on middle-income families and politics.
“I see this as a pioneering experience,” Rather says. And he could be right. Here is TV news issuing not from a huge organization, but, uniquely, from the vision of one guy.
“When I first talked to Mark Cuban, he told he that he was prepared to give me total, complete and absolute editorial and creative control,” Rather says. “Now stop and think about that for a moment: do you know any journalists past and present (with such an arrangement)?”
According to Rather, Cuban “only asked two things of me: ‘I want you to strive for excellence, and be fearless.’”
So, now for Rather, it’s no excuses. And like him or not, how he manages this gift of total independence could well be instructive for anyone who worries about journalism under a corporate thumb.
“Increasingly, most of the major news outlets in this country are owned by very large corporate entities, and, in some cases, international conglomerates,” notes Rather. And, among their many interests, some “increasingly come in conflict with what I think is strong journalism, the kind of role I think journalism should play in the country.”
Rather has a brand-new broadcast to get on the air. And he believes that, if he makes the most of his opportunity, “Dan Rather Reports” could make a difference. A positive force in journalism, even for people who can’t see it.