JUST off the foyer of CBS Television's Manhattan headquarters hangs a portrait that used to have pride of place in the reception area of America's biggest broadcast name. But last Monday, maintenance workers quietly turned up to remove what had overnight become an eyesore. The image it contained - of evening news co-anchors Connie Chung and Dan Rather smiling side-by-side - will no longer be available for viewing on the nation's TV's either. In a country obsessed with television, where the media carries more column inches about the battle for prime-time ratings than the battle for Sarajevo, the sacking of Chung as Rather's co-host was undoubtedly the story of the week. It ousted OJ and Oklahoma from the front pages of the New York tabloids, and prompted reams of cultural analysis in such worthy tomes as the Washington Post. Dan Rather, who had taken over the hottest seat in news broadcasting from the revered Walter Cronkite in 1981, was by Tuesday back on his own in the studio, regaining the lonely gravitas he had been forced to abandon in 1993 when Chung was brought in on a wave of publicity. Looking only slightly more smug than usual, Rather told viewers that Connie would no longer be joining him and wished her God speed. CBS news executives had called in Chung and her tough-talking agent Alfred Geller four days previously, to tell her the co-anchor concept had not worked, that she would be moved to her own weekend show and could occasionally fill in for Rather. Chung, the proud, ambitious celebrity desperate for the kind of journalistic credibility that Rather exudes, turned down the offer flat, and tore up the rest of her US$2 million-a-year (HK$15.44 million) contract. The station had perhaps naively hoped that Chung would keep quiet and the story remain buried. But in the following days, she launched an invective-driven PR campaign against her employers, while Rather maintained a dignified distance from the row (keeping, that is, all his unflattering remarks about his former partner strictly unattributable). But as the most prominent Asian-American on TV barraged CBS with accusations of sexism and favouritism, shareholders and broadcast analysts knew that her dramatic fall had roots that grew deep into the heart of the company. In an industry where the backroom machinations of management hold nearly as much fascination as what is shown on screen, the Chung saga mirrors the rise and fall of CBS itself - from what used to be known with pride as the 'Tiffany network' to a company plagued by disastrous ratings, old-fashioned management and constant rumours of a buyout. The Evening News is indeed a perfect microcosm of the travails of the station. Rather was barely holding onto second place in the prime-time news broadcast ratings - behind the ABC - when executives had the idea of promoting the glamorous, telegenic Chung to partner him two years ago. But if ratings are the only bottom line in the industry - a truism if ever there was one - the experiment backfired badly. Chung's contribution failed to stop the show slipping into an embarrassing third place. 'I was stupid for having thought it would work,' admitted CBS news chief Eric Ober. 'I plead guilty.' Meanwhile, however, the station's other output has been following suit. In an excellent 1993-4 season, where it struck lucky with the Winter Olympics and Tonya Harding, and relied on the success of old nuggets such as Murphy Brown, CBS held its usual number one slot. But it has since seen its market share sink from 23 per cent to an abysmal 18 per cent, leaving it third behind the renascent ABC and NBC, which have a duopoly on all the top shows such as Seinfeld, ER, and Rosanne. And in the crucial younger viewership, it even slipped to fourth behind the upstart network, Fox. Longtime chairman Laurence Tisch has also been criticised for failing to diversify the company and break into the lucrative cable TV sector, like his rivals. CBS then lost the rights to NFL football to Rupert Murdoch and Fox, and a handful of affiliate stations into the bargain. The station's woeful year reached its nadir when a merger with the QVC shopping network, designed to rejuvenate the company, fell through. It is in this context that Chung said: 'I'm being asked to take the fall for the failure of CBS Evening News' - and was probably right. In the cutthroat world of TV, where the fickleness of advertisers gives executives high health insurance premiums, the sacking smacked of an act of desperation. Chung's main gripe, put about furiously last week to all who would listen, is that she was the victim of a male-dominated management. Comparing herself to Barbara Walters, who also fell foul of a similar male-female format on ABC in the 70s, she said: 'Barbara opened the door for us, but it was closed shut for almost 20 years. I opened it again, and I just hope the path is smoother for another woman.' Her story was backed in an angry New York Post column by Andrea Peyser, who wrote: 'If only CBS would own up to the truth, and admit that for now at least, the evening news is a men's club.' For his part, Rather retorted: 'This has about as much to do with gender as mustard does with ice cream.' Insiders seem united in claiming that Chung's fall came when attempts to bolster her image backfired in CBS's face. Inter-office rivalry between the two anchors, with Rather less than willing to give up the good assignments and the kudos that go with it, had initially led executives to direct Chung towards the more sugary types of story. But when she began to draw flak for continually being seen as the one who chased Tonya Harding with a camera, she demanded more serious opportunities. A serious setback for her image makeover came in the now infamous interview with Speaker Newt Gingrich's mother. She was accused of tricking her into revealing how Newt had called Hillary Clinton a bitch. No matter that CBS had promoted the broadcast by playing up that very angle (until the Speaker spoke up); it was Chung who was burned. Her insistence on taking less fluffier jobs and some of Rather's weightier assignments also led to another setback. When the Oklahoma blast erupted last month, Dan Rather repeatedly called the office from his vacation home in Texas to request to be sent, only to blow a fuse when management decreed Chung should get the nod. Rather went instead to Vietnam, while Chung dug another few inches in her own grave when she reportedly incensed local Oklahomans by casting aspersions on the capability of the rescue crews. The role of Rather in Chung's downfall is an unknown element, but decidedly ripe for speculation. Whenever she did land a plum job, he would complain - Richard Nixon's funeral being another well-documented incidence - and seemed to sense a threat. 'Connie's presence clearly bothered him,' according to Peyser. 'He either took it as an affront or a diminishment of his stature. He didn't want to share that stage.' In between the squabbling over jobs, Rather was also telling management of his concerns over Chung's shortcomings as a serious journalist - an image she never managed. In a damage-reduction breakfast with TV writers only last week, he revisited the same theme, insinuating that his co-host never read up about current affairs, and felt her image problem was rubbing off on him. In the fallout from the collision of two major egos, CBS staff appear to be coming down on the side of Rather, not least because Chung made such a public airing of her grievances. But with morale at an all-time low in the newsroom, few seem to be seeing the funny side. 'Both sides need to be put back in the corner and have the gloves taken off. 'Everybody needs to be hosed down. It's embarrassing,' said a producer. If Chung cannot be tempted back to CBS, rumours suggest she may be lured over to sign with Fox. Meanwhile, CBS is planning a renewed assault in the ratings war with 40 new pilot shows, including a newsroom comedy starring Mary Tyler Moore as the editor. If the scheme helps CBS back to number one, it may be a gamble worth taking.