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Bright, beautiful Christine Paskins is riding the fast track as a tough TV reporter--her passion for her work rivaled only by her love for news producer Greg Lyall. But when Greg's dream of power is brought tantalizingly close by the attentions of the CEO's socialite daughter, their lives explode in a tangle of passion and heartbreak, love and betrayal that spans a decade.
Star Time exposes the voraciously ambitious people who provide the TV shows America watches¾and what they will do to get what they want. From the boardrooms of Manhattan to the bedrooms of Hollywood, uppermost in everyone's mind is the same thing¾the ratings.
Star Time is a gripping, fast-paced, fascinating, and sharply funny look at the inner workings of network television, the shows that make or break it, the people whose lives it consumes, and the lengths they'll go to achieve success¾their star time¾ that will hold readers enthralled and delighted until the very last word.
Greg Lyall lay in bed later than usual, reflecting on the turn of events that, yesterday, had placed him in command of the Federal Broadcasting System—its television network, its stations, everything—the prize that finally made his marriage and his other regrets worthwhile.
As if sensing that his thoughts touched on her, his wife stirred and opened her eyes, smiling at him for an instant, before turning over and returning to sleep. He slipped out of bed and padded softly into his dressing room. Quietly closing the door behind him, he moved into his black and gray marble bathroom at the far end and stepped into the shower.
At thirty-seven Greg's tall, trim body still suggested an athletic youthfulness. His good looks and appealing manner imparted a charm that concealed how hard he had worked to master the amiability that precluded dislike, to suppress contrary impulses and desires in pursuit of his aspirations. Greg was sure that the consensus within FBS, probably within the entire television industry, was that he would quickly drown in his new post, leaving widening ripples in the shape of his trademark winning smile to mark the spot. Those seeking some advantage from him or to displace him at the top would count on it.
He dried himself, and while he shaved he flipped on the small TV set sunk into the wall beside the mirror. FBS's early-morning program came on. He considered it a dull, ill-produced offering. A fashion expert was discussing with the program's vapid, but cheery hosts the current fall fashions being modeled by anorexic females swiveling by them. Greg frowned at the inappropriate booking. At this hour men dressing for work made up a large part of the audience; they would switch channels instantly. He did.
And his breath caught! Christine Paskins's blue eyes were staring at him. She was a strikingly beautiful blond with a lively on-screen personality that reflected the quick mind behind it. For the last two years, she had co-hosted her network's early-morning smorgasbord of entertainment, chit-chat, human interest, and snatches of news that was now challenging "Today" and "Good Morning, America" for the lead in ratings. Rumors were flying that despite being offered an annual salary several million dollars more than she had ever earned, she was balking at renewing her contract and wanted to return to hard news.
That was very much in character, Greg mused. Broadcast executives tended to capitalize on her fresh good looks and popularity with viewers and to ignore the astute, committed newswoman behind them. Broadcast journalism had been Chris Paskins's passion since childhood, he knew, and she was very good at it.
Suddenly, his admiration was quickened by an idea.
Although in a hurry now to get to his office, he stopped a moment at the end of the bed. The cover had fallen away, and his wife's sleeping figure was curled into protective serenity. She looked pretty asleep, he admitted, with her hair spread into a careless aureole on her pillow. He had no doubt that she inwardly believed herself responsible for his promotion. She might well be right.
Walking south on Fifth Avenue toward the FBS Building, Greg's thoughts turned to the problems facing him as the new chief of the tottering broadcast empire. FBS was in a dire condition, and little time remained to save it. Ratings of its prime-time entertainment shows were scraping bottom, putting it far behind the other major networks. That translated into dismal advertising revenues and the prospect of heavy losses. Unless he developed some hit shows by next season, eleven months from now, FBS might sink beyond saving and might even be seized by a corporate raider seeking its valuable stations.
FBS's second problem was excessive costs. He intended to prune away deadwood in the executive ranks and overstaffing everywhere, restructuring the operation to make it lean and aggressive again.
Greg believed, though, that the third problem, the foundering news division’s miserable ratings and quality, could be attacked immediately.
What differentiates a network’s flagship nightly news program most visibly from competitors is its news anchorperson, the man or woman who presents the news each night and is the focus of live coverage during important events. Viewers could pick from Brian Williams, Diane Sawyer, and Scott Pelley and, in an earlier era, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings and, earlier still, Walter Cronkite and the duo of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. The news anchor was the network's readily identifiable emblem, its herald to attract beneath its banner the largest audience for its news broadcast. Much of that audience would funnel into the network's prime-time shows and generate the largest amount of advertising revenue for the broadcast.
Greg was convinced that the way to lift FBS News out of the cellar was to hire Christine Paskins as its permanent news anchor.
The floor director on the rim of the brightly-lit set called out, "In five, four," marked the last three seconds silently with the appropriate number of fingers, and then pointed at Christine Paskins and her male co-host to indicate that the commercial break had ended and they were on.
"Welcome back to 'Starting the Day' on this crisp autumn morning," the male co-host read from the teleprompter glass in front of the camera lens. "All over the Northeast the trees are turning gold and red, and in our final half hour, we'll show you how fall looks in several beautiful old New England towns this time of year."
Chris Paskins, beside him, dressed in a blue silk dress, remarked pleasantly, "We should have worn-fall colors today."
She shifted her attention from her co-host to the camera. "But first, the President's recently unveiled stimulus plans have met with a good deal of opposition from House Republicans. The Senate's majority and minority leaders will be with us from Washington to give us their differing views. That's after the latest news from Charles Hartnet. Charles?"
Everyone on the set relaxed. The news segment would take three minutes.
Chris began to leaf through her notes for the joint interview she would conduct with the senators via satellite. A voice in her earpiece stopped her.
"There's been a change, Chris." The speaker was the show's producer, Ron Skelly. "Kathy Trowbridge will do the interview right from Washington."
Chris's gaze shot between cameras toward the control-room window in the rear of the studio. She could just about make out Skelly's form in the darkened booth. He was standing up, but bent forward to speak into the intercom mike. Her lapel mike would carry her angry voice to him.
"Are you trying to tell me a couple of minutes before an interview I personally arranged and prepared questions for that you've shifted it to someone else?"
"Oh, didn't anyone let you know?" the unctuous control-room voice replied.
"That's unforgivable. I'll get to the bottom of it, Chris."
"The question isn't whether I was told, but why you switched it without telling me."
"Well, because of your husband, it just made more sense. We didn't want viewers to think we were favoring either side in the debate."
"My husband's position never stood in my way before."
"Oh, I know, Chris, I know, I know. But the conflict in Congress has become so controversial, they insisted."
He pointed upward. "The executives. I'm just a gofer in this."
"Right," she seethed.
At nine o'clock, as soon as the program concluded, Chris stormed into the control room, catching Skelly as he was trying to slip out.
Ron Skelly was a small, frail-looking, man with overly long gray hair. His unattractive appearance and long-married state had never inhibited him from propositioning every woman who crossed his path, rarely with success. What he had mastered, however, was rising in his profession by deftly placing a knife between other people's shoulder blades while commiserating with the victim over the death wound. Chris believed Skelly's advent as producer this year, her second on the program, had caused a marked decline in its quality. Out of a need to put his own stamp on her already popular show, he often acted illogically, arbitrarily, and even spitefully in picking stories and setting its tone. She was the show's most popular element. In order to elevate the importance of his own contribution, he sought to diminish hers. Her dislike of Skelly was a major reason for her reluctance to renew her contract. Unfortunately, network management considered him a loyal "pro" and felt replacing him would be a sign of weakness that ceded her too much power.
To increase the pressure on her to knuckle under in contract negotiations, they had stalled the talks until only weeks remained before her contract expired. Switching the interview had been Skelly's way of demonstrating that he was boss, part of a process he had convinced management would break her will and impose obedience.
"I'm really sorry about the interview," he intoned with practiced concern. "I wish there was something I could have done."
"Who did you claim took it away from me?"
He shrugged. "You know I can't say." His tone seemed to ache with concern for her.
"I'll just have to call your bosses one by one to find out."
Chris spun on her heel and strode down the corridor to her office. Skelly was an untalented lowlife, but she considered him more of an annoyance than an obstruction. What she really hated was this morning program itself, filled with guests plugging products, activists attacking others without providing practical solutions, psychologists hawking books that claimed to repair the love lives of unhappy women or emotional syndromes no one had until then ever noticed, and an endless procession of actors praising their films and TV shows, the latter usually on that network.
She had made no secret of her desire to return to straight news, but her network's news programs and newscasters were flying high in the ratings, so no position she wanted was open to her.
Chris's assistant was answering the phone at her desk as Chris charged by her.
"It's someone named Greg Lyall," the woman announced, her hand covering the receiver's mouthpiece.
Chris tried to clear her mind enough to make sense of the words.
"When I asked who he was, he said he was head of FBS," the woman continued. "But Barnett Roderick runs FBS."
"I'll take it in my office."
This was the second time in a few hours that Greg Lyall had shattered her composure. Stepping into the limousine that transported her to the studio, her gaze had fallen on the copy of The New York Times placed on the seat for her. The front-page story of his accession to FBS’s helm caught her with the shock of a surprise punch. Hurt and rage had welled up inside her, and she had quickly turned to the second section. Now, Greg was phoning her. Her anger at Skelly could not have a more satisfying target.
"Hello," she snarled.
"You took my call. That's something."
"You’ve got exactly five seconds to tell me what you want."
"Have you renewed your contract with your network yet?"
"It's no business of yours, but we're close."
"I think we should talk before you do."
Chris started to hang up. "You have nothing to say I'd be interested in."
"What if I said that I wanted you to be the permanent anchor of FBS's nightly news, our prime newscaster. Election coverage. Summit meetings. Space shots. Catastrophes. Everything."
Probably nothing else he could have said would have halted her. For several seconds she thought of all the reasons not to be interested, all the reasons not to trust him.
"You're tempted," he sensed.
"I didn't say that."
"Enough to talk at least. How about tonight, over dinner?"
"I'll discuss it with my agent. If we're interested, he'll phone you."
She hung up and stared at the receiver. A knock at the door interrupted her thoughts.
"Come in," she said.
Ron Skelly poked his head through the crack. "That satellite interview with Netanyahu? They want Sue Talbert to do that one."
"And just why?"
"Well, with your contract still up in the air, they seem to want to try out young reporters who might replace you."
Skelly managed to withdraw his nose an instant before the door slammed shut.
Chris had been thrown into turmoil by Greg's phone call. Even the offer of anchoring a network news program, of rising to a pinnacle reached by so few, might not have tempted her into considering Greg Lyall's network if Skelly had not added this new insult to his earlier injury.
She phoned her agent. He was excited by Greg's call. It would strengthen his hand when he met this morning with her network's president of News. He would try to meet later in the day with Greg.
Greg was convinced that luring Christine Paskins to FBS would be the quick, bold signal to one and all that he was to be taken seriously, that he could restore FBS's luster and profitability. Her presence alone, at least in the short term, would guarantee a bump in the ratings, if only out of curiosity. Sustaining the rise over time would be far more difficult, but if accomplished, would translate into higher prices for the broadcast's commercial time and pump in millions more a year in income. More important, it would buy him breathing space and go a long way toward overturning the widespread assumption that he was a lightweight unequipped to cope with the demands of his unearned role.
Greg had no idea whether he could land Chris or not. At least she had not turned him down. That was probably more than he had any right to expect. He believed, though, that if he could just get her and her agent to listen to his offer, to his arguments, he might stand a chance.
The problem was that Christine Paskins was the one person in the world who knew precisely what he had sacrificed to attain his new position. She knew he had sacrificed his soul.