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Newsmagazines raise the stakes in bid for viewers

Feb 26, 2001  •  Post A Comment

A small-town mayor’s wife is shot in the head, and the search for justice rips open a close community with its revelations of embezzlement and intimations of a marriage that was not what it had seemed.
The story is made for TV and has more than enough twists and turns and contradictions for a sweeps movie with a did-he-or-didn’t-he? ending ripped from the pages of court transcripts from two trials that had two very different outcomes.
But Monday’s movie-length murder-mystery is a real-life saga reported by “Dateline NBC’s” Dennis Murphy.

“We’re not paying actors. We’re not re-creating anything,” said Executive Producer Neal Shapiro. “Hopefully, the look is a little more cinematic. The shots are a little slower, because we have the time.”
Getting that time was surprisingly easy, to hear Mr. Shapiro tell it. Convinced that he could not do justice to the trials of accused murderer George Ravelle in an hour, he outlined the story to NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa and then Entertainment President Garth Ancier and “they set the airdate.”
It’s not the first departure from the traditional magazine format for “Dateline.”
But it is another example of the “event” strategy that has become increasingly important to newsmagazines in a season that is so competitive even CBS’s venerable “60 Minutes” has seen ratings slip.
“60 Minutes,” which hits the 1,500-edition mark April 1, is averaging 2 percent fewer viewers for the season to date compared with a year ago and is in the rare position of having been forced out of Nielsen Media Research’s top 10 and all the way down to 17th place in the total-viewer rankings for the same period.
“Newsmagazines are always going to have trouble competing against a runaway hit show,” said Mr. Shapiro, who has seen “Dateline” fare best this season hammocked between the popular “Providence” and “Law & Order: SVU” on Fridays (racking up an average 12 million viewers to tie for the season with “60 Minutes II”). On Mondays, “Dateline” averages 9.8 million viewers, up against both CBS’s hit comedy block and Fox’s hit David E. Kelley block; on Tuesdays, 11 million viewers; and on Sundays, 10 million viewers.
“That’s why we’ve been intent on trying to push the nonfiction envelope,” said Mr. Shapiro, who saw “Dateline” peak for the season with 16 million viewers for the Friday, Feb. 9, hour devoted to a story about conjoined twins. Another big winner was the Jan. 5 episode, which featured an interactive murder story that at several points in the hour invited viewers to join the investigation-and determine the next segment. That edition mustered 14 million viewers opposite CBS’s freshman hit “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”
Mr. Shapiro has other interactive projects in the works but said the next is probably a couple of months away.
The “Dateline” unit also now includes the remnants of the teams that produced long-form prime-time projects for “Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw and CNBC’s Geraldo Rivera, which means Mr. Shapiro will now directly supervise another five or six hours a season, with a staff that, due to recent cutbacks, has not grown.
Where “Dateline’s” output may top off this season is anybody’s guess, said Mr. Shapiro, whose rival in pinball scheduling is Susan Zirinsky, executive producer of “48 Hours,” which at different points in its 13 seasons has been scheduled on every night of the week except Sunday and has stretched its format to include “news movies,” two-parters and themed summer series.
“We were born as an event,” said Ms. Zirinsky, describing the single-subject premise of the franchise that will be bounced around the schedule again when the David Milch drama “Big Apple” bumps it out of CBS’s Thursday night lineup March 1.
In March, “48 Hours” will be scheduled for a Monday and two Wednesdays and then return to Monday to finish the month.
Ms. Zirinsky doesn’t know yet what her show’s schedule will be in April and May, but she’s confident “48 Hours,” whose season-to-date viewership is up 1 percent year to year in spite of 4 percent ratings erosion at 10 p.m. Thursdays, will be back; and she’s not about to quibble with CBS’s take-no-prisoners approach to Thursday.
“We work so much better when we’re not up against `ER’ and splitting a newsmagazine audience,” said the executive producer, who notched her biggest viewership of the season (12.8 million viewers) on Monday, Feb. 12, with an hour about shaken-baby syndrome.
Victor Neufeld can testify to the effects of a hit entertainment show as competition and as a lead-in.
The senior executive producer of newsmagazines for ABC News has seen “20/20” viewership grow 24 percent to 12.9 million viewers in the three weeks since “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” became its lead-in on Friday.
“PrimeTime Thursday,” with “Millionaire” as a lead-in, has improved ABC’s performance in the 10 p.m. block by 29 percent this season.
Revamped this season as a vehicle for Diane Sawyer, “PrimeTime” snagged the first TV interview with Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris and exclusives that allowed it to build an entire hour around the terrorist bombing of the USS Cole.
But “PrimeTime’s” biggest nights this season have come against “ER” repeats: 15.9 million viewers on Nov. 30 with a story about twins afflicted with “hair-trigger rage,” and 14.9 million on Jan. 25, when the hour was devoted to the medical and emotional drama endured by Dr. Jerri Nielsen’s at the South Pole after she was diagnosed with a fast-spreading breast cancer.