Odd Alliance: ABC, CBS, Fox Make Strange New Alliance …

ABC and CBS have teamed up with Fox News in an effort to take on Ted Turner’s CNN and, while they’re at it, NBC. They’ve formed an unprecedented news alliance that would have been unheard of just a few years ago.

Under the agreement, finalized late last month, the three news organizations and their affiliates will formally share video footage from breaking news stories they cover throughout the country.

“This is a substantial shift,” said one longtime network news executive. “Now you’re in bed with your enemy.”

For instance, if ABC can’t get a crew to the next school shooting in, say, Wyoming, the network and its affiliates can pick up the footage from one of its network partners. Or, if ABC or one of its stations doesn’t like the footage it’s getting from one of its affiliates as much as the footage that CBS is using on a given story, the new alliance would allow it to switch to its rival’s footage instead.

ABC and CBS will each contribute $4 million annually to the venture-which will go by the name of Network News Service-and Fox will contribute about $7 million, sources said.

It’s all about fighting the CNN cable beast. The end result, some TV news people fear, could be even more sameness in television newscasts.

“I don’t think we would have done it five years ago,” said CBS News president Andrew Heyward. “It is a based on a growing realization of how the business is changing.”

It used to be 25 to 30 percent of all TV homes tuned into the likes of Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley each evening. Now, an average of 15 percent of TV households watch Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw or Dan Rather.

Here’s how, exactly, this ABC-CBS-Fox alliance will help those networks in their news battle against CNN. The way things stand now, CNN gets footage from 600 local stations from around the country. These stations can be affiliated with any of the networks. In exchange for a fee and an agreement to give footage to CNN now and then, the local stations get national and international news footage from CNN.

The little affiliates need the CNN footage. How else can they be certain they’ll have footage of a hijacking in India, or bodies in the water, for their rinky-dink newscasts? They can’t rely on the network they’re affiliated with for that; none of the networks have the global and domestic presence of CNN.

But now, ABC, CBS and Fox can tell the little affiliates across the country that they don’t really need Mr. Turner and his news network anymore. By pooling footage and distributing it among everyone who is in the deal, stations from across the country will have a big, brand-new bank of footage to draw from.

Fox, which paid $3 million more than CBS or ABC to join the new alliance, looks like the big winner for the time being, simply because it is the only one of the three networks involved to have a cable news network. Footage belonging to the new collective will likely air first on Fox News Network much of the time.

Some of the local channels who are now members of this new collective may still give their news footage to CNN; but now Rupert Murdoch, chief executive of News Corporation, which owns Fox, will have the footage he needs to match that of his rival, Mr. Turner.

“You can’t let the other guys beat you with your own guys,” said one news executive who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s sort of like your own guys that are killing you.”

“You think Rupert Murdoch likes writing Ted Turner checks?” said an executive close to the talks.

But, at its heart, the agreement represents an admission by two of the Big Three networks that they are no longer so much in the news gathering business as in the news analysis and packaging business.

“I think that it’s critical, as we go forward as ABC News, to identify the places where we can compete and win,” ABC News president David Westin told The Observer . “And where it’s important to compete and win, to devote all of our resources to those places and to minimize the resources that we are devoting to things where we can’t compete.”

Where ABC can compete, he said, is with its on-air talent like Peter Jennings and Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer. Where it can’t compete, he said, is on the ground with cameramen during breaking stories.

“There are exclusives that come up from time to time, but those are increasingly rare. By and large, we’re not going to compete and beat CBS or Fox on generic video on breaking news stories. It’s not going to happen,” he said.

That’s an admission that has some of the troops over at the networks a bit upset. While it is not uncommon for them to share video with a rival once in a while out of courtesy, they said, this takes things farther than they’re comfortable with.

“This is about the downfall of the Tiffany Network and the downfall of ABC, both of which had famous news divisions in the past,” said one ABC producer. “We would have never thought of doing something like this. We were too proud of ourselves and too proud of what we did, and there was a kind of snobbery-we’ve got better stuff than anybody else, so why would we want to share it … This denigrates the uniqueness of our product.”

But Mr. Heyward, the CBS president, questioned just how unique the product is when it comes to breaking news.

“You see the same pictures on a lot of channels now,” he said. “Footage of breaking news has become a commodity. It is essential. You’re much more likely to be burned by not having the pictures of the day than you are to be rewarded for having them. The audience expects you to have them. You’re going to be judged on how you turn the raw material into a finished product.”

He said any fears that this will lead to a total collaboration by the three partners should be allayed by a clause dictating that the agreement is null and void in the city where a story breaks-so local news channels will still aggressively compete for scoops.

The deal has been in the works for a year and should take effect in February, he said.

NBC was apparently not included because it is already leading the pack and has in MSNBC its own 24-hour operation to collaborate with. NBC representatives have repeatedly called that decision “curious,” while the partners have said if NBC is interested in joining up, it should approach them.

Under the terms, the news service will be run out of the CBS broadcast center on West 57th Street. Fox News will control the purse strings, and ABC will name an executive to run the service. If one network claims a piece of video is “exclusive,” and the others disagree, Mr. Heyward, Mr. Westin and Roger Ailes, chief executive of the Fox News Channel, will get on the phone to hash it out.

Officials at the two rival networks predict that the organizational chart is fraught with peril.

People in the Internet news world see the collaboration as another signal that their time is going to come.

“These guys are all fighting over crumbs on the table,” said Steve Rosenbaum, chief executive of a Cameraplanet.com, an Internet site that will launch in March featuring home-made, digital video of news events and features. “There’s not a marketplace for the amount of news that’s on television, for the amount of follow-me news that looks the same. The Internet is about to break wide open people’s access to images, and this is just further consolidation to try and shore up the edges of a big franchise.”

Today, get your news the old-fashioned way, from Mr. Jennings on World News Tonight . [WABC, 7, 6:30 P.M.]

Thursday, Jan. 6

Tonight marks the second night of the return of Greed , the treacherous Fox game show and evil twin of ABC’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire . We’re big fans over here. We especially like the “Terminator” feature, during which host Chuck Woolery gives a player the option to go up against a teammate in a one-question quiz-off for all of the teammate’s money. It also gives the five teammates a chance to give their team leader-who signs off on answers before they are submitted-the boot if they don’t like him or her. It’s all so deliciously dastardly! NYTV asked co-executive producer Bob Boden whose sick mind came up with these nasty features. He said basically that Fox asked the Greed team at Dick Clark Productions to make it edgy, so he and his writers came up with the Terminator Round. “We originally called it the ‘Eliminator.’ At one point it was the ‘Annihilator.’ Then we settled on the ‘Terminator,'” he said. “We wanted to come up with an acceptable way for teammates to challenge each other, since they did not know each other coming in to the game.”

Who could argue with that? Mr. Boden would not say whether he thought his game was better than Millionaire -which his game show is copying-but he did assess the key differences like this: “I think the dynamics of our team play reflect the human spirit-both its positives and its negatives,” he said. [WNYW, 5, 9 P.M.]

Friday, Jan. 7

Tonight, one of the Brady Bunch , Marcia, convinces Davy Jones to perform at the prom. Sing it with me: “Guhl, look what you’ve done to me.” [Nickelodeon, 6, 9 P.M.]

Saturday, Jan. 8

We really have reached the end of an era. After more than 6 years, the E! Gossip Show is now off the air. That’s right, the show that helped Downtown Julie Brown cling onto a career and Liz Smith become a TV face has been canned. Executives at E! said it isn’t even that the show was falling in the ratings. It’s just that new things that were brought onto the E! schedule were doing much better. More specifically, the reality-biography shows like E! True Hollywood Story and Mysteries & Scandals -ironically hosted by A.J. Benza, who was discovered on Gossip Show .

“It is a victim of the success of the other shows,” said Betsy Rott, the network’s vice president of original programming.

For some good ol’ E!-style celebrity reporting, catch The Best of Whipple’s World on New York 1 tonight. [New York 1, 1, 9:30 P.M.]

Sunday, Jan. 9

A few weeks ago, CBS chief Les Moonves was asked what he thought about all these new game shows that are flooding the network schedules thanks to the surprise success of ABC’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire . He basically said he’s not thrilled with the trend because, for each game show, there are about a dozen TV writers out of work.

Jump-cut to the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. There was Peter Mehlman, the former Seinfeld producer who created It’s Like, You Know , nursing a sitcom cancellation hangover-one of the first to directly lose a job to the game show juggernaut.

A few days earlier, he was told his show about Los Angeles yuppies-starring the new-look Jennifer Grey-was going to bite the dust to make way for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire , which will now run three nights a week on ABC. “When you’re knocked off by Who Wants to Be a Millionaire , you can’t be unhappy about it … it’s just so off the charts,” Mr. Mehlman said from his Santa Monica, Calif., home. “Being taken off that schedule is like being rejected for a detective’s job in the Boulder Police Department.” But what does he really think of Regis Philbin’s smash hit?

“It’s just very effortless to watch, and it’s kind of feel-good, too, because you basically feel smarter than most of the contestants, unlike Jeopardy , where you kind of look up to these people,” he said.

Stu Bloomberg, the ABC Entertainment co-chair who acquired Millionaire over the summer-when no one thought it would pull any real ratings-told Mr. Mehlman it is possible that his show could get picked back up in the spring, though it seems unlikely right now.

“Stu said, ‘In any other season, we would have kept you on, but this Millionaire thing has got to be played out,'” Mr. Mehlman said, almost listlessly.

Tonight, it’s the return of Millionaire , with Mr. Philbin as host and possible savior of ABC. (NBC will try to take it on with the launch of its new Twenty-One remake). [WABC, 7, 8 P.M.]

Monday, Jan. 10

Hugh Downs, 80, really gets this whole Internet thing. Why, just a few months ago, the TV news veteran left ABC’s 20/20 for a news Web site covering the White House called Exbtv.Com. But he’s not going to stop there. He told NYTV he’s planning to launch a Web site for old people that will offer stories and advice on financial planning and health issues. It’s not just because he’s old, he said. In fact, he said, his interest in old people began, oh, about 50 years ago.

“I did a special for NBC, How Long Can You Live , which still stands up somewhat,” he said. “It was on human life span, not life expectancy, and I got more and more interested.”

Speaking of the elderly, tonight, catch The Golden Girls and that lovable Betty White. [Lifetime, 12, 6 P.M.]

Tuesday, Jan. 11

9 So Barry Diller is again talking with the Walt Disney Company’s Michael Eisner about some kind of broadcast partnership between his high-numbered UHF stations and Mr. Eisner’s ABC. But those close to Mr. Diller’s organization said don’t assume that means Disney will wind up being Mr. Diller’s partner. He is also talking to everybody else in the broadcast business-still.

Tonight on Mr. Diller’s USA, catch a rerun of Walker, Texas Ranger! [USA, 23, 8 P.M.]