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Media: Anchor of the right mettle rises to the top: Diane Sawyer's dollars 7m deal with ABC makes her a brand name in US prime-time news. Peter Pringle and Edward Helmorein report

She started off as a minion in Richard Nixon's White House and 20 years later is an anchor on ABC Television, earning dollars 20,000 ( pounds 13,800) an hour (if you don't count holidays) for a yearly total of dollars 7m.

Her name is Diane Sawyer. She is blonde, ice-cool and asks all the awkward questions male anchors won't. To Marla Maples about Donald Trump, for example: 'Was it really the best sex you ever had?'

She has interviewed Fidel Castro, General Noriega, Saddam Hussein prior to the Gulf war and, most famously, made her way into President Boris Yeltsin's office in the Russian Parliament building during last year's attempted coup.

But the key to her success is that she has established an audience for her blend of diligent reporting and celebrity interviews that the big networks can tap for a lucrative new prime-time programme slot. Without an audience you cannot be a star.

US television stars aim to build an audience over time. Traditionally, male ones - Mike Wallace, Walter Cronkite - have had to look rugged and tough and exude trust. Female ones had to be outrageous, like Barbara Walters, or sisterly, like NBC's Morning News anchor, Katie Couric. Ms Sawyer, 48, positioned herself between hardened reporter and girl- next-door. Her audience trusts her, feels she will ask the embarrassing questions, but that her softness keeps her from making viewers angry at her more aggressive sallies.

She has tracked a flawless upward trajectory. Born in Glasgow, Kentucky, raised in Louisville, she studied law at Wellesley College before joining the local station WLKY-TV as a reporter in 1967. She held several posts in the Nixon administration and helped the former president to write his memoirs before joining CBS in 1978.

With this latest ABC deal Ms Sawyer joins the stars. At the top, and the oldest at 62, is Barbara Walters, also of ABC, who earns dollars 10m a year. Behind her come Peter Jennings of ABC (dollars 7m), Ted Koppel of ABC (dollars 6m), Dan Rather of CBS (dollars 3m), Connie Chung, also of CBS (dollars 2m), Tom Brokaw of NBC (dollars 2m), and on down the line to CNN's heavy- duty broadcasters who work round the clock, but make only in the hundreds of thousands.

Sawyer has created something every television newscaster yearns for - a bidding war among network executives for her services. Last month, four networks were vying for her as her dollars 1.6m contract with ABC expired. Sawyer joined ABC from CBS in 1989 and co- anchors its early evening World News Tonight with Peter Jennings and Thursday's magazine-style PrimeTime Live.

CBS, her old network, wanted her back. Howard Stringer, who worked in British television before emigrating to the US in the Seventies and becoming head of CBS, wooed Sawyer for a late-night news show. But she turned his dollars 4m offer down: late-night news shows - often unscripted - not being her forte. NBC offered her unrivalled prominence with prime-time news magazine shows.

Then along came Rupert Murdoch, head of Fox TV, with an offer of dollars 10m for a Sunday news show to compete with 60 Minutes (the CBS programme she worked on before joining ABC). The offer, which would have given her career gravitas, was tempting - but she again wisely decided to stay with ABC. Richard Leibner, Sawyer's agent (agents typically earn 10-15 per cent of the deal) says: 'She didn't make the decision for money. It came down to loyalty to ABC, and where she could function best as a journalist.'

The deal secures her greater editorial influence in the ABC news division. And she will have the opportunity to anchor or co-anchor two extra prime- time news shows, making her the most visible news figure between 8 and 11pm - television's most watched hours.

Sawyer is married to the film producer-director Mike Nichols, and clearly does not need an extra dollars 7m a year, but that is not what her decision to stay with ABC was all about.

If you want an explanation on why someone who reads the news can earn so much, look to the agents. They are the ones fuelling the fires of competition between big broadcasting executives. 'The dollars will continue to get bigger for the stars, and will be reduced for everyone else,' one talent scout told the New Yorker.

But a key reason is that the news magazine format is cheap to produce, costing dollars 700,000 per hour against dollars 1m for drama or comedy. Sawyer is viewed as a personality with the power to create a new prime-time magazine show: her PrimeTime Live attracted advertising revenue of more dollars 15m in 1992-93.

Tom Rosensteil, of the Los Angeles Times, says: 'There would have been a huge loss of prestige for ABC to lose one of its stars to an upstart network like Fox in the highly publicised bidding war.'

News stars are the brand names of television, sold over the air just as Budweiser and Snickers bars during any spectacular show. At the Winter Olympics, for example, CBS seemed to spend as much air time selling the Evening News broadcasters Dan Rather and Connie Chung as it did on Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.

ABC's Peter Jennings put it this way: 'This country looks to TV for its cues more than any other I know . . . and none so driven by personality.'

(Photograph omitted)