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TV Newsmags Tell the Story

Sep 1, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Newsmagazines have proved themselves adaptable to the culture, the technological landscape and the economy.
The genre was born in 1968 with the debut of CBS’s “60 Minutes,” driven by producer Don Hewitt’s insistence that correspondents and their unsung producers “tell me a story.” (See sidebar on Mr. Hewitt, who is entering his final season with the show.) It was a dramatic departure from the traditional dense, “white paper”-style documentaries that had been the standard through the first two decades of television. Except for the occasional flirtation with such gimmicks as ambush interviews or “Point/Counterpoint,” “60 Minutes” has not strayed from its original premise.
“`60′ probably is the most consistent show. It is what it is and it hasn’t evolved very much, because it is the granddaddy,” said Phyllis McGrady, the ABC News senior VP who oversees prime-time news, “Good Morning America,” “PrimeTime” and “20/20,” which debuted in 1978. “PrimeTime” debuted as “PrimeTime Live” in 1989 and was folded under the “20/20” banner from 1998 to 2000 in an unsuccessful attempt to imitate “Dateline NBC’s” one-show-on-many-nights success.
The major networks, which have all trimmed the size and cost of their news departments in recent years, have come to depend on the staff of correspondents, producers, writers, executives and technicians on the top newsmagazine shows not only to fill regular time slots, but also to serve as their backup team. When big news events break, the newsmagazines are the ones asked to churn out “instant specials,” whether it’s a war or a historic blackout.
“Everybody has realized you have got to have a first-rate prime-time news team,” said “Dateline” executive producer David Corvo.
“They are a much more viable part of a network and what the network puts on the air” than just one or two nights a week, Ms. McGrady said.
Her network dealt an unexpected body blow in 2001 to “20/20” and the equally valuable Barbara Walters franchise when it announced that “20/20” would take a hiatus from the Friday lineup to give ratings-challenged “Once and Again” another chance to find an audience. Despite that interruption, when it finally returned to the lineup, “20/20” was able to quickly regain its momentum.
“I think they are viable programming and impactful programming,” Ms. McGrady said. “I absolutely do see them being part of the network landscape far into the future.”
“I really believe that the magazine genre is going to come back up a bit next year,” said Susan Zirinsky, who has been executive producer of the CBS newsmagazine “48 Hours” since 1996. “I really believe the human drama, the stories that we go after, will become mainstay staples again.”
The biggest challenge to the newsmagazines has not come from scripted shows, but rather from a newer genre of unscripted shows. Reality TV, which can be done for a reasonable cost and provide a quick ratings hit, has become a challenger for precious time slots and network energy. In some cases, reality shows have provided a benefit by creating a strong, well-matched lead-in audience for newsmagazines.
For most newsmagazine producers, 2002-03 was a season of erosion punctuated by big news and big-name interviews. “It’s a tough time for magazine shows, because reality shows are the flavor of the moment. Some of them are very inexpensive. They are easy to promote, because they are all high-concept,” said one network news executive. “And there is only so much airtime for nonscripted programming.”
The magazine shows plan to make the most of their time slots. “In the current atmosphere, your challenge every week, no matter if you are `West Wing’ or `Dateline,’ is to attract viewers. It is a very difficult challenge, week in and week out. There are so many choices for people,” Mr. Corvo said. “You have to make your program an event. In the era when you have 50 percent network share vs. 90 percent [in the past] and many, many more viewing options, you have to make your program stand out. You have to get the word out that this is a one-time event that you don’t want to miss.”
Ms. McGrady joined ABC News in 1977 and has helped broaden the definition of a newsmagazine, which is perhaps the most adaptable of all programming species, even including such series as the single-subject “Turning Point” (1994).
After 17 failed attempts to launch a successful newsmagazine, NBC debuted “Dateline” in 1992, and it nearly didn’t survive its first season because of the faked explosion of a GM truck in a story about the vehicle’s safety. The scandal led to NBC News management turnover but “Dateline” survived, thrived and peaked with five editions per week in 1997.
By last season, “Dateline” was down to three regularly scheduled nights. Next season’s lineup includes only two nights of “Dateline:” Sunday (where it has proved surprisingly sturdy against “60 Minutes”) and Friday.
“Last year we called it three-minus. `We’ve scheduled you three times, but we’re going to pre-empt you a number of times because we have specials coming up.’ This is two-plus. `OK, you’re scheduled twice, but we’re going to need you, and we even know some of the dates, to fill in here, do two hours there.’ That gets added to and moved around,” said Mr. Corvo, whose crew was cranking out more original segments this summer than his competitors.
However, the yo-yo programming commitments caught up with “Dateline” last week, when approximately 15 producers, associate producers and other behind-the-scenes personnel were let go.
“Dateline” will have a fresh look this season. As Mr. Corvo simplifies the only set “Dateline” has ever had (“It feels a little bit out of date”), he added: “I don’t want to spend a fortune on it, because it’s not good use of money.”
As a group, the newsmagazine producers are optimistic about their shows’ future for a number of reasons.
In Ms. McGrady’s case, ABC’s adult-friendly Friday sitcom block and “Extreme Makeover” on ultra-competitive Thursday night are expected to improve the lead-ins for “20/20” and “PrimeTime,” respectively.
In general, the magazines returning this season have proved themselves durable.
They have proved to be a rich source of ideas for big- and small-screen movies. “When we do a good news movie, as I call them, an incredible hour, I’m flooded with calls the next day from people who want to do made-for-TV movies and feature films,” Ms. Zirinksy said. The day after running an hour about a New Orleans brothel operated by three generations of women, her “48 Hours” team received nearly 30 calls, including one from CBS Entertainment, asking how a potential producer would get in touch with the principals. The women themselves reportedly got more than 80 calls from interested producers.