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Season of Change at Newsmags

Sep 20, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Not all the nips and tucks in the broadcast networks’ 2004-05 prime-time lineups are on the entertainment side. Adjustments are being made across the board in newsmagazines as well.

Some of those changes will be as obvious as the absence of Barbara Walters and the ascension of Elizabeth Vargas on the anchor desk of ABC News’ “20/20” and as dramatic as the retooling of “Primetime Thursday” as “Primetime Live.”

Others will be apparent only to those behind the scenes or in the know-and there is a lot to know about the changes afoot on the newsmagazines this season.

Here’s a comprehensive breakdown of what’s new and what’s not.

`Dateline NBC’

7 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Friday on NBC

David Corvo, the executive producer of both editions of NBC News’ 12-year-old magazine franchise, is, despite occasional rumors to the contrary, sticking with Stone Phillips as solo anchor. Mr. Phillips will get out of the familiar studio and host “out in the field when the location is important,” said Mr. Corvo, who has “refined” and “updated” the graphics.

There will be more working “hand-in-hand” with “Today” and more frequent contributions from the “Today” foursome of Katie Couric, Matt Lauer, Al Roker and Ann Curry. Already in the can: the first of what will be occasional pieces by Brian Williams, who will succeed Tom Brokaw as “Nightly News” anchor at the beginning of December. (No schedule has been worked out for Mr. Brokaw’s specials, which are “kind of a subset” of the “Dateline” unit.)

“Most efforts have been put into story development,” said Mr. Corvo, whose stable of correspondents is extensive. Expect to hear a lot about “schemes, scams and scoundrels,” and to see a lot of consumer and investigative reporting-former “60 Minutes” producer Adam Ciralsky has been added in the Washington bureau. Expect a little more emphasis on highly promotable interviews. “We’ve been working hard on improving our profile in Hollywood,” Mr. Corvo said. And expect more single-topic hours as well as the trademark instant specials and segments when big or juicy news breaks.

“Dateline” expands or contracts to plug holes in NBC’s prime-time lineup, but Mr. Corvo said the recent pattern of two hours on Friday and two hours on Sunday is not in the current plan. However, he said, “We will have specials from time to time.”

`60 Minutes’

8 p.m. Sunday on CBS

“60 Minutes” veteran and Don Hewitt protege Jeff Fager begins his first season as executive producer of the granddaddy of all newsmagazines-and still the biggest cash cow of the herd.

The new season officially begins Sept. 26 with a lineup that includes a Mike Wallace interview with Bill O’Reilly, a piece Mr. Fager describes as “two lions in a cage” trying to see which can “out-O’Reilly” the other. Also scheduled is the first piece produced by Ira Rosen since his return this year to CBS after a long stint at ABC News, in which Steve Kroft wrings an on-air confession from a big-time con artist. “You see it all unfold on camera,” said Mr. Fager.

In other words, “60 Minutes”‘ simple and time-tested mix of big stories, big profiles and big scams.

Andy Rooney promises, in a promo that was scheduled to first air Sept. 19, that he will, among other things, clean out a desk drawer this season. Viewers can expect to see more frequent contributions from such correspondents as Bob Simon.

“There aren’t any bells and whistles being added,” Mr. Fager said.

`60 Minutes’

8 p.m. Wednesday on CBS

With the controversy over the authenticity of documents cited in Dan Rather’s Sept. 8 story about President Bush’s Vietnam-era stint in the Texas Air National Guard, Josh Howard is facing his first trial by fire as executive producer of the 6-year-old “60 Minutes” spinoff edition.

Mr. Howard’s only allusion to this swirling story came when he was asked what is likely to be on the lineup for the season premiere Sept. 29. “Things have been changing because we’ve been in the middle of this story,” he said.

Like Mr. Fager, Mr. Howard is a veteran of “60 Minutes” and a protege of Mr. Hewitt who plans to make no significant changes on air. “Last season [both editions of `60 Minutes’] were the two highest-rated magazine shows on television, and we’re hoping to repeat that,” said Mr. Howard.

Until this summer, the Wednesday installment was “60 Minutes II.” Now both programs, which are run separately, are billed as “60 Minutes.” Internally, the shorthand for his show is “60W,” which could stand for “Wednesday, weeknight or whatever,” said Mr. Howard.

Mika Brzezinski has joined the list of contributors to “60W” in addition to her “Evening News” assignments. Mr. Howard is negotiating with two “producer types” he did not identify.

`primetime>live’

10 p.m. Thursday on ABC

Five years after she left “PrimeTime Live” to stem the ratings free fall at “Good Morning America,” executive producer Shelley Ross was reassigned last spring to the newsmagazine that is anchored in one of the most competitive time slots in prime time. Faced with the challenge to work another miracle, she opted for an extreme makeover.

She has taken the 15-year-old newsmagazine back to its roots. It’s live. The title, once “PrimeTime Live,” then “Primetime Thursday,” is now “primetime>live,” which represents only the beginning of the changes in the look and sound of the show, which now has a set that is black and bright and red all over.

Founding co-anchor Diane Sawyer continues to do double duty as Charlie Gibson’s co-anchor on “GMA” while serving as one of a handful of rotating correspondent-anchors. Over the summer, it was decided that Mr. Gibson would continue to contribute occasional pieces to “primetime.” He no longer will appear on the show as an anchor, although Ms. Ross said, “I’m sure Charlie will introduce his own pieces.”

By originating live from New York, as it did during the nine years Ms. Ross was a “PrimeTime” producer, the newsmagazine ups the ante in average weeks and is in a position “to respond to any breaking news,” she said.

Ms. Ross has resurrected the musical opening from “That Was the Week That Was,” NBC’s mid-1960s political satire series also known as “TW3”, to close “primetime.” The two-minute segment mixes lyrics sung by talent search winner Kristy Glass and rhyming headlines delivered by Los Angeles lawyer and Groundlings member Kevin Ruf.

“I licensed the [original `TW3′] song, not the full show,” said Ms. Ross.

Her other economic efficiencies included the dissolution over the summer of the “Primetime” Washington bureau, which had been left without an explicit role when Chris Wallace jumped to Fox News in 2003. Two of the D.C. producers will continue to contribute to “primetime” and another staffer was promoted to associate producer and transferred to New York.

Ms. Ross plans to use original polling by ABC News as the foundation for reports, starting with a sex survey she said is “more credible than Kinsey.”

She also is refocusing on the investigative stories for which “PrimeTime” and “Primetime” once were known. The “pumped-up investigative team” Ms. Ross has assembled includes award-winning ABC News producer Chris Vlasto, who teamed with correspondent Chris Cuomo on last week’s season-opening gimlet-eyed look at Donald Trump’s business acumen and empire.

Mr. Trump’s displeasure with the press beforehand kicked up a handy round of headlines for “primetime.” Ms. Ross, who knows how to set off attention-getting ripples, said, “I do think controversy is not bad. We just didn’t generate it.”

Scheduled for this Thursday is an interview Ms. Sawyer did last week with Jennifer Lopez. Ms. Ross wants to stay away from “promotional celebrity interviews” and go for pieces on celebs who have “something to say. The viewers speak to us on that. They know the difference,” she said.

`20/20′

10 p.m. Friday on ABC

The “seismic changes” that start with the loss of Barbara Walters as both anchor and defining correspondent are being treated by “20/20” executive producer David Sloan as an opportunity to redefine the 26-year-old newsmagazine as an ensemble that has capitalized on such franchis
es as coping, parenting and behavioral reporting and that has found recent success with “high-concept” hours on such themes as “10 political myths,” relationships and nepotism.

“We found these concepts performed like `gets,”‘ said Mr. Sloan, who will remain at the newsmagazine’s helm under a new contract.

Elizabeth Vargas, who has made a name as a stand-in for “World News Tonight” anchor Peter Jennings and as the host and correspondent of successful prime-time news specials, is succeeding Ms. Walters as co-anchor to John Stossel, himself the star of a string of prime-time specials.

New to the time-tested corps of correspondents are former “GMA” regular Don Dahler, former NBC newsman Jim Avila and, in another kind of big “get,” Martin Bashir, the star Brit journalist best known for headline-making interviews with Michael Jackson and Princess Diana.

Newly tweaked graphics, music and set are “cosmetic changes to trumpet the fact that we are beginning the new season with the new team,” Mr. Sloan said.

`48 Hours Mystery’

10 p.m. Saturday on CBS

“We are actually a new show,” said Susan Zirinsky, executive producer of what was titled “48 Hours Investigates” and anchored by “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl last season.

Ms. Zirinsky has ditched the anchor position-although Ms. Stahl will continue to contribute reports-and broadened the “Mystery” focus that has proved successful in short-run “48 Hours” spinoffs while infusing the 16-year-old franchise with a “very experiential feel.”

“We pay attention to law and order, crime and punishment and wrongs that should be righted,” said Ms. Zirinsky. “It will not look like a traditional magazine. This is the first reality drama, and it will feel different.”

Setting that tone in the season opener Sept. 25 is a report about a decade-long search for justice in a “twisted tale” of murder, Ms. Zirinsky said. “Where we find great satisfaction is when we turn the tide for a case.”

That applies to the ever-challenging time slots in which the magazine has been deployed in recent years, including more than one stint on Saturday night.

But, said Ms. Zirinsky, “I’m not going anywhere backwards.”