Newsmag Closure a Warning to Others

May 23, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Never has it been more clear that newsmagazines have to earn their place on networks’ lineups than it was last week, when CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves declared that “60 Minutes Wednesday” is dead come fall.

Cause of death: fading ratings and graying viewership in its seventh season.

Less clear is whether all network newsmagazines are more vulnerable now that CBS has made the once hard-to-imagine move of killing a magazine with a signature pedigree.

“I don’t think it’s a good prognosis,” said Jeff Fager, the founding executive producer of “Wednesday.” He took over the Sunday edition of “60 Minutes” last year and added responsibility for “Wednesday” this year after the “Memogate” scandal resulted in the forced exit of four people associated with the midweek magazine, including executive producer Josh Howard.

“It’s obviously a very sad time. This is a group of people with an enormous amount of pride in what’s been accomplished over the years. It’s an impressive body of work,” said Mr. Fager. “We also recognize that commercially it wasn’t doing as well, and so the market forces take over.

“I think everybody has a realistic view of that, and we’re moving on. Unfortunately, we can’t keep everybody,” said the executive producer, who has lived through other tough times during his 23 years at CBS News.

Mr. Fager declined to address questions of which “Wednesday” personnel might be assigned to “60 Minutes,” other than to say that much of what has been written on that subject is wrong.

However, Mr. Fager already has initiated conversations at CBS about “60 Minutes” specials, a prospect that was accepted by Mr. Moonves and that could save some of the 70 to 80 jobs associated with “Wednesday.”

“We have a long history of doing one-offs,” said CBS News President Andrew Heyward. “What we’re going to try to do is keep as many people as possible here gainfully employed. That process is going to take a while. These are CBS staff employees, most of whom are under contract.”

Mr. Heyward added that the deliberations would be done on a person-by-person basis. “This is not going to be done in any cavalier, by-the-numbers way,” he said.

“We all know we cannot just assume networks will feel the responsibility to keep a magazine on,” said one network observer, who believes no magazine can count on surviving for any reason other than being successful or filling a network’s need for economical programming. “It’s really been that way for a long time.”

ABC has not made wholesale changes on its fall schedule at the 10 o’clock hour, the longtime home to “primetime>live” and “20/20” on Thursday and Friday nights, respectively. A strong 2005-06 entertainment season could change that.

“Dateline NBC” has been expanding and contracting since it was launched in 1992 and has built a staffing model that adapts to feast or famine. Since “Dateline” continues to be a utility player that can fill a number of prime-time problem spots, NBC News sources believe it has an immunity that other networks’ magazines do not.

“Just look at how they’ve been doing, newsmagazines during the week: Not well. They’re all off. `60 Minutes Wednesday’ was not the only one. I think it says something about [how] these things come and go. It’s a trend, and the trend is down,” Mr. Fager said.

The trend is less down on Sunday nights, when year-to-year audience erosion was held to 2 percent by “60 Minutes.” which averaged 14 million viewers for the season, and 3 percent by “Dateline NBC,” which averaged 7.9 million viewers, according to data from Nielsen Media Research.

“Dateline NBC” Friday averaged 8.8 million viewers, down 11 percent year to year.

Down 12 percent each were “20/20” (8.5 million viewers), “48 Hours Mystery” (7.2 million) and “primetime>live” (6.9 million).

The biggest year-to-year erosion was suffered by “60 Minutes Wednesday,” which dropped 14 percent to 8.5 million viewers.

“We were working this broadcast so hard, and I felt like we were going to break through and attract a bigger crowd,” Mr. Fager said, “but there was less interest. That’s a tough one to accept, but that’s the fact.

“But you know what? We had a great seven-year run, and in prime-time television that’s a long time,” he added. “So you’ve got to look at it that way too.”