Newsmags stay focused on terrorism

Oct 1, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The prime-time lineup has returned to normal, but the newsmagazines have not. Their lineups still revolve around the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.
Newsmagazine executives know that at some point they will begin mixing in lighter pieces that have nothing to do with Sept. 11. They cannot yet say when that will be. But they know that “light” will be a relative term for the foreseeable future.
“The big question is going to be, `When do you start doing other kinds of things?” said Phyllis McGrady, the ABC News executive who oversees “Good Morning America” and prime-time magazines. With the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, another period of singular and uninterrupted focus by the country’s television networks, “There was an ending. There was a little boy saluting. … This does not have that kind of finality.”
“I do think that people will get back to a broader mix of stories at some time. I don’t know what that mix will be,” said David Corvo, executive producer of “Dateline NBC.”
“I think there’s no doubt the world has changed,” said Jeff Fager, executive producer of “60 Minutes II” at CBS. “There’ll be fewer stories about how to groom your pet … which is a good thing.”
Ratings across the board last week underscored the purpose of the magazines, which have broken from format, sometimes adding an extra segment (“60 Minutes” and “60 Minutes II” have increased their story counts) and sometimes devoting the entire hour to one narrative.
On Friday, “Dateline’s” Stone Phillips spent the hour telling the story of how, in saving one woman’s life, six firefighters believed they saved their own lives, too. The subject of Tuesday’s hour is a comprehensive telling of the tale of Flight 93 and what happened before it crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
On Oct. 3, “60 Minutes II’s” lineup will include a segment about Osama bin Laden’s appeal to some Pakistanis, including schoolgirls.
On Friday, “48 Hours” went back on “the clock,” as it refers to its signature format of immersing several teams in one story for two solid days. One team spent 48 straight hours with people working on the recovery operations at the World Trade Center site now known as ground zero.
“We will be as flexible a flier as possible,” said Susan Zirinsky, the executive producer who has over the past few years experimented with various formats while hewing to “48 Hours”’ single-subject mandate. Like the other magazine executive producers, she played a significant role in filling the endless hours of news programming during the week after terrorists hijacked four airliners and this country’s sense of normalcy.
As the pace relented somewhat last week, magazine producers began thinking about how much of their pre-existing story bank might survive the weeks, perhaps even months-they could sit unfinished while correspondents and producers report on the biggest story of their generation.
Mr. Fager said his “60 Minutes II” crew had about 20 stories nearly ready to go before Sept. 11, and “I can only think of a few of them that won’t survive. We don’t have a lot of light stuff hanging around, and what we do isn’t going to go away.”
Mr. Corvo assumed the reigns of “Dateline” in a series of management changes at NBC this year and already had begun evaluating the story bank and reshaping some pieces as part of putting his own stamp on the magazine that expands or contracts to suit the network’s prime-time needs.
Some stories were pegged to the start of school, and some profiles had fall time pegs. “Obviously those go away,” Mr. Corvo said. But some Court TV and other long-form projects will “hold up perfectly well” whenever it is appropriate to restart them.
People magazine is another “Dateline” partner that Mr. Corvo said “was helpful to us” in identifying heroes and victims after Sept. 11. “They were feeding stuff to us and vice versa,” Mr. Corvo said. Nonetheless, he can’t see a time when he’d be interested in a collaboration pegged to one of the magazine’s frothy, gossipy signature special issues.
He said that at the end of the year, “we’ll have to see” about how People fits into the long-term picture at “Dateline.”
In the meantime, he’s being “very strict about the non-World Trade Center stories.” Stories that have a marginal chance of panning out have a slim chance of getting even a tentative green light. “I’m not launching very expensive hour projects I’m not sure I need,” he said.
He has gotten commitments from the principals in a story that had produced national headlines before Sept. 11, a story he said will continue to be worth an hour on “Dateline” at any point after the news cycle slows down. But when he thinks of many of the stories that had become staples on network magazines, “They just don’t seem to have the power these kinds of stories once had”,” he said.
“GMA” was just about to unleash a multimillion-dollar promotional campaign built around a song titled “Good Things Are Happening” and featuring a reel of happy moments starring members of the morning show’s family. “I said to the person who worked on that: `Just put it back on the shelf,”’ Ms. McGrady said.
She’s not able to guess when, but she is very much hoping there will come a time when “we’re wanting and needing that.”