SHE SPURNED THEM TWO years ago, but the TV networks don't give up easily, at least when it comes to exotic-looking foreign correspondents with a mixed British-Middle Eastern accent -- and a reputation for fearless reporting. The object of the major networks' desire is Christiane Amanpour, the CNN correspondent who has parachuted into conflicts from the gulf war to Bosnia and helped establish the cable network as must-see TV for world leaders. As a colleague once described her passionate brand of reporting, ""She gives great war.''
With her CNN contract expiring in June, the three major networks have made the 38-year-old, London-born Amanpour today's most sought-after correspondent. CBS News president Andrew Heyward flew to Paris last month to woo her. She returned to New York to dine with ABC's Roone Arledge and NBC news chief Andrew Lack. There are rumors of big bucks and juicy prime-time exposure, including a slot on CBS's prestigious ""60 Minutes,'' a major role on NBC's ""Dateline'' and star billing on ABC's ""Nightline'' and evening news.
CNN, traditionally a tightwad, gave Amanpour about $1 million when her last contract expired in 1994, making her the network's highest-paid correspondent. Facing new competition from the networks' planned 24-hour cable channels -- and needing Amanpour's mystique -- CNN is ready again to ""loosen the purse strings for Christiane,'' says president Tom Johnson.
Amanpour is the beneficiary of several trends that say a lot about the sagging state of TV news these days. In a world of multiple news sources and slumping ratings, the networks badly need distinctive identities to stand apart. Amanpour brings that in triplicate, says media critic Marvin Kalb. ""One, she's a woman; two, she has an accent, and three, she's gutsy.'' Networks also crave her ready access to world leaders -- especially critical because, like other media, they have scaled back sharply on foreign news. ""Getting Amanpour is a relatively inexpensive way of signaling you're serious in international news without having to open bureaus,'' says Andrew Tyndall, whose firm tracks TV news.
Will Amanpour, who started as a news assistant in 1983 (and speaks Farsi and French), leave the network? She's not talking, but the betting is that loyalty, freedom to pick her stories and more air time at CNN will win out over the networks' big bucks. But, a friend says, she knows that a network job would give her a mass American audience. We hate to say it, but stay tuned.