Newsmags Lost Amid Youthful Fare

Dec 22, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The most important news story of the year was the war in Iraq.
But the year’s battle royal in the news business was over the “big gets.” The contests to land high-profile interviews resumed when journalistic troops came home to the land of a press free to pursue stars, celebrities and suspects, no matter how silly, fleeting or unsavory the stories that propelled them into the spotlight.
While the network news divisions’ fascination with celebrities is not new, a confluence of pressures on the divisions’ flagship magazines is.
Newsmagazines continue to draw the bulk of their audiences from the mostly aged set in a time when younger viewers are at an all-time premium. What’s more, in this era of instant gratification, reality shows have replaced newsmagazines as the quicker-to-gin-up, efficient-to-produce alternative to costly sitcoms and dramas. If reality shows click, they produce huge ratings and sexy demos. If newsmags click, they draw a big, gray audience.
Still, magazine franchises appear to be the most painless-and repeatable-way to fill a time slot for which a network has developed no viable entertainment options. So in pursuit of a lasting magazine that can also appeal to the MTV or even VH1 generation, newsmagazines have turned to the quick fix: the celebrity or tabloid interview that brings in younger or casual viewers who tend not to come from the traditional newsmagazine viewership ranks.
“The standards of what’s reportable and interesting have changed,” one network news executive said. “Paris Hilton [and the videotape of her having sex with a former boyfriend] can be considered a huge news event.”
At every network, news insiders worry that the escalating addition to and competition for big gets have magazines dancing as fast as they can on increasingly blurred journalistic guidelines. Outright paying to land an interview is not acceptable, but paying for home movies to illustrate the piece or purchasing an interview conducted by someone else is not uncommon.
The need to maximize the big gets led NBC News to give NBC’s syndicated entertainment magazine “Access Hollywood” first dibs on promoting NBC News shows, which in turn led ABC News to strike a similar deal with “Entertainment Tonight.” “Access” host Pat O’Brien conducted an interview last summer with Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez that was heavily hyped on “Access” before it ran on “Dateline NBC,” attracting 10.6 million viewers and a flurry of questions about the journalistic correctness of it all.
But it was CBS News that stirred up perhaps the most energetic debates about news ethics last summer when it enumerated proposed tie-ins with other divisions of CBS parent Viacom in its pitch for an interview with former POW Jessica Lynch (whose capture and rescue during the Iraq war would prove to have been exaggerated by the government). CBS News denied that the assorted offers amounted to forms of payment or that it had crossed any lines between news and entertainment.
Some critics and competitors still argue that what CBS News had put on the table was incentives with cash components. The first interview with Ms. Lynch went to ABC star Diane Sawyer, who had sent her a locket containing a photo of the Lynch family home. NBC’s Katie Couric, who sent a stack of patriotic books to Ms. Lynch, secured the right to a subsequent live interview on “Today.”
Ms. Sawyer’s Lynch interview drew 15.7 million viewers, which will not count toward “PrimeTime’s” seasonal performance because it was in a special time slot Nov. 7. Meanwhile, “60 Minutes” attracted 17.6 million viewers Nov. 9 when its celebrity-free lineup included a piece on an unsung U.S. military hero who was among the five soldiers taken prisoner after the attack on Pfc. Lynch’s convoy.
Now the glut of celebs on newsmagazine lineups and the jarringly diminished interest in some old reliables (only 9.3 million viewers for Ms. Couric’s Nov. 14 “Dateline” visit with Tom Cruise?) raises new concerns.
What happens when too many celebrity interviews produces what some say is the inevitable celebrity-watcher fatigue and the accompanying ratings crash?
“I think there is oversaturation. I think there is overkill. And a lot of them are not special,” said an executive at a news organization.
“We could all be in for a very sobering experience,” said an executive at another news organization.