Bob Franken




Where were you the day Elvis died? If you are younger than 44 you were just a gleam in your daddy’s eye (or your momma’s), but back in the day, those of us in TV news biz used to amuse ourselves by debating the lineup, the order of stories, of the evening broadcasts on the three networks. That’s back when there were just three who carried the prestigious (translate pompous) national and international news, with their 800-pound gorilla anchors Walter Cronkite at the “CBS Evening News”, John Chancellor of “NBC Nightly News,” ABC’s grand experiment with Barbara Walters and Harry Reasoner. They were called 800-pound gorillas because as highly paid anchors they got their way, except for Waters and Reasoner who didn’t get along at all.
As a personal aside, I interviewed for my first network job in 1979 at NBC with the news division’s president Bill Small, who had a well-deserved reputation wavering between hard-nosed and downright nasty. I expected the question: “What did you think of the ‘Nightly’ lineup last night?” And I expected he’d respond that whatever I said was wrong. So rather than giving a tactful, wishy-washy interview critique, I was fully honest and argued point by point with Small. We parted on what I thought were bad terms, but a week later I got the job.
The point is that the network shows’ lead story often made for a lively discussion. It was sometimes obvious, but not necessarily. On August 16, 1977, in late afternoon, the word seeped out and then was confirmed: Elvis Presley, the “King of Rock and Roll,” had died of a heart attack at age 42. By today’s cable news reality, it would have been a no-brainer. Not only would that be the lead story, but it would have been the ONLY story.
But back in yesteryear, 1977, those who ran the broadcasts considered themselves journalistic saviors. And while NBC and ABC led with Presley, the lah-di-dah news lords at CBS led with some microscopic, inside-the-beltway development in the debate over the Panama Canal Treaty.

Fast-forward to today’s high-tech 24-hour cycle and social media where each and every one of us is a news lord, complete with a bitter argument between conspiracy theorists who strenuously argue that Elvis never died and those who don’t give a damn. In modern times, the conspiracy theorists are represented by QAnon, and their Elvis is Donald Trump. But even after his loss at the polls (he really did lose) and Joe Biden’s victory (he didn’t really steal the election) there still is a network nightly newscast and producers and anchors who decide the lineup.
These days, it’s a difficult choice or an easy one — they can’t be wrong. On any given day this week, the lead can be Afghanistan, where Joe Biden’s sudden withdrawal of troops was either a success story or an unmitigated calamity, or a weather disaster, hurricane high winds, followed by massive floods, forest fires or stifling heat waves — some sort of climate change apocalypse. There’s a global pandemic, where in the United States, COVID has resurged just when we expected it to be tamped down because of a vaccine. It’s consuming us once again because of American paranoia over shots. Occasionally there’s a gruesome shooting massacre, and infrequently, there is something particularly outrageous about Donald Trump.
Oftentimes, it’s what happens last. When Elvis died late in the day, technical limitations made it impossible to fully give it the network treatment. Even now, if it occurs too late, the nets will turn to local news “happy talk” reporters, and their “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality.
It’s not absolutely good or bad: The next time a rock ‘n’ roll superstar dies at the same time a significant political event occurs, CBS will lead with the rock ‘n’ roll star.

© 2021 Bob Franken
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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