Mystery afoot at ‘PrimeTime’

Feb 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

ABC News’ “PrimeTime” is hoping a change of style and a successful lead-in will help the Thursday newsmagazine out of the ratings hole it has fallen into this season.
The magazine, co-anchored by “Good Morning America” desk set Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson, plans to present its stories in the style of mysteries, said executive producer David Doss, adding that the effect should be apparent by March.
The cavalry can’t arrive soon enough for “PrimeTime,” which is ranked 84th out of 139 programs in total viewers this season, a precipitous drop into a Bermuda Triangle created by hits on CBS and NBC and compounded by lead-in problems that started with “Push, Nevada” this season and most recently included a low-rated “Columbo”movie.
“We have not had anything that has been remotely successful leading in to us in more than a year,” said Mr. Doss, who hopes that will change with the network’s decision to fill the 9 p.m.-to-10 p.m. Thursday hour with provocative reality shows “Are You Hot: The Search for America’s Sexiest People” and “Extreme Makeover” in February, March and April
Mr. Doss laid out the new game plan for the staff of “PrimeTime” the week ending Jan. 26, a week for which Nielsen Media Research data showed the magazine’s year-to-year loss for the season to date was 30 percent in total viewers and 28 percent in the target 25 to 54 demo.
Those losses are by far the worst of any newsmagazine this season. CBS’s “60 Minutes” and “60 Minutes II” viewership for the season through the week ending Jan. 26 was down 8 percent year to year. “Dateline NBC” Tuesday and Friday editions were off 6 percent and 3 percent. “Dateline NBC” Sunday edition season-to-date viewership is up 7 percent year to year. ABC’s “20/20” has eked out a 2 percent increase in viewership on Fridays over the course of the season.
Projects killed
The biggest growth of any magazine this season was the 12 percent viewership increase by “48 Hours Investigates,” which this year went for the crime-mystery focus that has proven successful in several short-run “48 Hours” spinoffs.
Mr. Doss denied the early scuttlebutt that “PrimeTime” would go crime, crime, crime in its selection of subjects. “It doesn’t have to be crime,” he said. “It needs to be told in an interesting way, as mysteries.
“I don’t see this as the major overhaul that some might make it out to be. If we are completely different from week to week to week, then it’s tough to build momentum. It’s more about storytelling,” said the executive producer, who said there are mysteries to be found in stories about everything from medicine to government corruption.
Sources said as many as 22 stories that had been in various stages of development are now dead because they do not fit the new focus. Mr. Doss said, “I didn’t count. That’s probably an exaggeration.” He said he is not killing projects “that we are deeply invested in.”
The new emphasis will sometimes result in single-subject hours, but he said there will be some nights on which the lineup features two or three subjects.
If the highly competitive Ms. Sawyer lands a big celebrity interview, it will run on Thursday “PrimeTime,” said Mr. Doss, who promised that the magazine will cover big breaking news stories, even if it means delaying all or part of a planned lineup.
While he said “the days of simply looking at a magazine as journalism” are over, he also said the changes do not portend a lowering of the standards that have earned “PrimeTime” awards.
“We have to kind of say this is what we are facing, what we are going to do to be competitive,” said Mr. Doss. “I see this as doing the good journalism we have been doing in a way that is perhaps more appealing to the audience.”