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Newsmagazines Given Reprieve

May 22, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The 2006-07 prime-time schedules unveiled during upfront week reaffirmed that these are indeed challenging times for the once-ubiquitous television newsmagazines.

CBS’s fall lineup turned out to be a win-win for the CBS News division, with both of the network’s newsmagazines, “60 Minutes” and “48 Hours Mystery,” back in prime time-and in their familiar time slots-this fall.

At ABC, “20/20” returns in its familiar Friday spot, but longtime franchise “Primetime” does not appear on the fall schedule at all. And at NBC, the once-peripatetic “Dateline NBC” is scheduled to appear only once per week. But the outlook for newsmagazines at the latter two networks is better than it would appear at first glance.

“Primetime” has received a full-season order for 48 hours of programs and will be back, though its appearances will be more irregular than in any of its previous 17 seasons-at least until the magazine is called off the bench to plug a hole left by a cratering entertainment series.

A similar standby status is in store for 14-year-old “Dateline NBC,” which at its peak was scheduled five nights per week and often has aired twice or more per week during the current season. It will start fall with only a regularly scheduled Saturday night hour until an entertainment show bites the dust.

Beyond their obvious value as utility players for network programming chiefs, newsmagazines are a source of revenue for the broadcast news divisions, which were minting the format like junk bonds in the late 1980s and early ’90s. The resulting glut, coupled with the ascendance of cable news, thinned the herd.

That makes every newsmagazine hour precious to the news divisions, even if the genre’s drawing power gets less potent every year while the networks’ prime-time stakes get higher.

Still, “If you’re not pulling your weight financially as well as editorially, you’re not going to be [useful] on the schedule,” “Dateline NBC” executive producer David Corvo said.

CBS’s “60 Minutes”-which has averaged 13.7 million viewers this season to date, according to Nielsen Media Research-is not only the most profitable newsmagazine in TV history, it was the first news program to make network owners think that news could and should be profit centers.

“Our staple stories are investigative, hard, thoughtful, well reported in-depth stories,” executive producer Jeff Fager said. “That’s our bread and butter. That’s what our viewers expect.”

Mr. Fager declined to discuss personnel changes that might be necessary to accommodate the addition of “CBS Evening News” anchor Katie Couric and CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Lara Logan as featured contributors to “60 Minutes” in its 39th season.

“It’s a grand old franchise and a great brand,” he said. Ms. Couric, Ms. Logan and Mr. Cooper are “the next generation,” he said.

As for “48 Hours Mystery,” which has reinvented itself several times during its 18 seasons on the air and has resided in nearly every prime-time time slot in the process, no changes in title, focus or personnel are contemplated, a spokeswoman said. The magazine has averaged 7.8 million viewers this season.

For “Dateline NBC,” the next generation is more about topics than correspondents. The intermittent series of hour-long installments featuring the arrests of online pedophiles has been successful-nearly 9 million viewers for each of the six predator installments.

Mr. Corvo fended off any suggestions that cutbacks are a possibility as a result of having only one “Dateline” hour on the fall lineup, but conceded that the need to find people who can enliven stories that revolve around computer keyboards may require some reassessment of individual strengths.

He described the “Dateline” team as, “In essence, the breaking-news unit” for NBC. He noted that “Dateline” will produce mostly new hours for Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays and two hours for Sundays for much of the summer.

The need to reinvent itself is familiar to ABC’s “Primetime,” which saw persistent rumors come true-sort of-when it was learned that it was not going to be in the fall lineup for 2006-07.

But David Sloan, the executive producer of “Primetime” (which averaged 7.2 million viewers this season) and “20/20” (8 million) said: “The great headline yesterday was that we got our full-season order. That equals renewal.”

The staff, still fronted by contributor-anchors Diane Sawyer, John Qui%F1;ones, Cynthia McFadden and Chris Cuomo, will remain busy assembling hours and limited series (one, a six-parter on medical mysteries, will run from July into August).

“I think ‘Primetime’ will continue to be about innovation,” Mr. Sloan said. “20/20,” he said, will continue to be branded next season as “The stories that define your life.”

Among them are likely to be more “In America” stories such as co-anchor John Stossel’s hit “Stupid in America.” “Broke in America” is another possibility.

But losing a regular time slot for any length of time is difficult.

“Most magazines are in very tough time periods,” Mr. Corvo said. “That’s sort of self-fulfilling in a way.”