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Roberts Cites Limits To Iraq Coverage

CNN host has no regrets about losing CBS anchor chair

By John Eggerton

John Roberts, former CBS newsman and new co-host of CNN's American Morning, has covered Iraq and the Hezbollah/Israel conflict long enough to recognize that the media should have been more vigilant in the run-up to the war, including more diligently fact-checking administration claims. But Roberts believes the problem stems from a lack of journalistic boots on the ground early on.

“CNN had a presence there, and I really can't speak to that because I don't know, but I know at CBS we had zero presence on the ground, or very little, in Iraq in the months before the war,” Roberts recalls.

“We had some people in there before the war, [but everything] was difficult to verify. Even if the Iraqis took you to a place that was suspected of having weapons of mass destruction, they had deceived and dodged so many times in the past; why would you think they were telling the truth?”

Roberts believes journalist hands are tied when it comes to offering the whole truth in Iraq. “We're not fully covering the war because we don't have the access to do it,” he says. But it is also about what the American people can stomach, he adds.

“If we showed people the full extent of what we see every day in Iraq, we would either have no one watching us because they couldn't stand to see the pictures, or we would get so many letters of complaint that some organization would come down on us to stop.”

Roberts sees no middle ground on the issue. Even late-night airings present difficulties. “Somewhere, it's not going to be 10 o'clock,” he says. “If it's 10 in New York, it's 7 in Los Angeles.”

His new perch allows him unique access to the issues. A year-plus into his CNN tenure, the man once tapped as a possible replacement for Dan Rather at CBS says he'd rather feed the insatiable cable news beast than man the long desk at a network newscast.

For all the “perceived power and glory” of the broadcast networks, “they're not putting that much on the air,” he says of his old CBS stomping grounds—not compared with the 18 hours of daily, original programming networks like CNN and Fox News Channel have to come up with.

Still, the man who appeared to be in line for the anchor seat before Katie Couric got the nod must have the occasional pang. Does he really prefer waking up at 2:40 a.m.—when they say “American Morning,” they're not kidding—to take endless Blackberry requests for yet another update to a story?

“Obviously, if you had a Katie job, you would be able to make an awful lot of money and only have to do it for a few years and then you could retire to Montana or wherever it is that Tom Brokaw went,” he told B&C. “But I would rather be where I am now, particularly given the problems that CBS has got. I don't want to talk too much about that, but CNN is going along terrifically.”

“It's a tremendous opportunity to roam the news universe,” he adds. “You can exercise those breaking news muscles, as well as the ruminative aspects.”

'L&O' Originals May Go to TNT

Decisions on the fates of 17-year-old Law & Order and companion Criminal Intent were in flux on Friday, heading into this week's upfronts.

Also still on the table at deadline was an offer from TNT—the longtime home of L&O reruns—to license less costly new episodes of the series if NBC drops it (B&C, 5/8).

NBC Universal Television Studio produces the Dick Wolf series and has a vested interest in keeping the “mothership” of the $3 billion-plus L&O franchise alive beyond this season.

NBCU has long-term commitments from TNT to pay $1 million per episode for L&O reruns, with another $800,000 coming in from guaranteed international deals. To continue, the production budget of L&O would have to be slashed far below its current $4 million per episode.

A follow-up report stated TNT could opt to go with a full-season order of 22 episodes, in contrast to cable's traditionally smaller orders of scripted series.

NBC, TNT and Wolf declined to comment on speculation.—Jim Benson

'Crosswords' Is Cleared In 85% of U.S.

Program Partners and Merv Griffin Entertainment (MGE) announced more major-market and group clearances for Let's Play Crosswords, bringing the new game show past the 85% U.S. clearance mark for the 2007-08 season.

The half-hour syndicated strip has added more than 55 new affiliates and is now cleared in 28 of the top 30 markets and 45 of the top 50.

Crosswords affiliates include stations from the NBC O&Os in the top markets, as well as Allbritton, Belo, CBS O&Os, Clear Channel, Cox, Duhamel, Gannett, Gray, Freedom, Hoak Media, Hubbard, Journal, McGraw-Hill, Mission Broadcasting, New Age Media, Nexstar, Post-Newsweek, Raycom, Schurz, Scripps, Sinclair, Sunbeam, Tribune and Young groups, according to the distributor.

Newly added markets include Philadelphia (KYW); Washington (WJLA); Detroit (WDIV); Tampa, Fla. (WFTS); Miami (WTVJ); Portland, Ore. (KGW); Columbus, Ohio (WSFJ); and Grand Rapids, Mich. (WWMT/WWMT-DT).

Others include Birmingham, Ala. (WTTO/WABM); Greensboro, N.C. (WXLV/WMYV); Richmond, Va. (WTVR/WUPV); Ft. Myers, Fla. (WNFM); Tucson, Ariz. (KMSV/KTTU); Springfield, Ill. (KOLR); Shreveport, La. (KTBS /KPXJ); Burlington, Vt. (WVNY/WFFF); Harlingen, Texas (XHRIO); Colorado Springs, Colo. (KKTV), Ft. Smith, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA); Davenport, Iowa (WBQD); Lincoln/Hastings, Neb. (KHAS); and Tallahassee, Fla. (WCTV).

Program Partners Principal Ritch Colbert credits Griffin with fueling sales. The former talk-show host has earned 17 Emmys throughout his career and raked in hundreds of millions of dollars from the sale of syndication's top-rated Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!

The new game show, which attempts to attract the more than 60 million Americans who regularly do crossword puzzles, has propelled Program Partners into the spotlight. Until now, it had been primarily seen as an importer of Canadian series into the U.S. TV market.

Merv Griffin Entertainment is also producing the second season of Lisa Williams: Life Among the Dead for Lifetime.—Jim Benson

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