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Newsmags Face Feisty Opponents

Oct 30, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Suddenly, last season is looking almost like a walk in the park for prime-time newsmagazines.

The executive producers of the four network newsmagazines on the air this fall agree that the 2006-07 broadcast season is confronting them with unusually strenuous competition from entertainment shows. They also agree that it’s too early in the season to draw any conclusions from the magazines’ year-to-year ratings comparisons.

“It’s complicated, because any executive producer will tell you the dust hasn’t settled yet from the horses leaving the gate,” David Sloane, executive producer of ABC’s “20/20,” said. “It’s really unclear where things are right now.”

That’s particularly true for the newsmagazines whose ratings can be affected by what time the sun goes down; the reversion from daylight-saving time to standard time, which brings with it earlier sunsets, only happened last weekend. Earlier night will help boost viewership for CBS’s “60 Minutes,” which airs at 7 p.m. Sunday, and the peripatetic “Dateline NBC” whenever it runs at 8 p.m.

Additionally, “60 Minutes” rides a ratings seesaw during the NFL season. Every other Sunday, CBS carries the late-afternoon game, which tends to run over and swell the lead-in “60 Minutes” gets. On the other hand, on the Sundays that CBS carries the early NFL game, “60 Minutes” does not have a large football audience funneled into it.

“60 Minutes” executive producer Jeff Fager maintained that the only accurate sense of where the granddaddy of all TV magazines stands during NFL season comes when one averages an even number of Sundays (meaning there are an equal number of late football and early football Sundays), and not an odd number.

Using that formula, Nielsen Media Research data shows that as of Sunday, Oct. 16, four weeks into the season, “60 Minutes” was up 3 percent in total viewers year to year and flat in the 25- to 54-year-old demographic category that determines rates the networks can charge for ads in news programming.

“Our October numbers are fairly similar for last 10 years,” Mr. Fager said.

In the first four weeks of this season, “48 Hours Mystery,” CBS’s Saturday night beacon of original programming, was flat in total viewers and in the 25 to 54 demo (though it was up 10 percent in the even more precious 18 to 49 demo).

ABC’s “20/20,” a powerful fixture on Friday nights for many years, was down 11 percent in viewers, down 9 percent in the 25 to 54 demo and down 14 percent in the 18 to 49 demo.

“Dateline NBC’s” Friday edition this season was up 21 percent in total viewers, up 64 percent in the 25 to 54 demo and 82 percent in the 18 to 49 demo. (“Dateline” also has aired on Saturdays and Wednesdays, where no year-to-year comparisons can be made.)

Its return to Friday nights is one reason “Dateline” is doing better, said executive producer David Corvo. “I think people are finding us. Our network is doing better. I also think doing [single-topic] hours is advantageous. It really gives people a reason to come back after the commercial breaks.”

“Dateline” has competed with the CBS hit drama “Close to Home” and the less-sturdy ABC freshman “Men in Trees” at 9.

“20/20” has a harder row to hoe cause it is caught at 10 p.m. Friday between the CBS hit “Numb3rs” and, this season, NBC’s enduring “Law & Order.”

In addition, Mr. Sloan said, postseason baseball on Fox “has muddied the picture the last couple of weeks. Men are about 35 percent of a newsmagazine’s audience. It’s a significant part, you know. You can’t do without it. Men have bled away to baseball.”

Holding down the same time slot over several years has helped “48 Hours,” executive producer Susan Zirinsky said.

Although Saturday often is written off as a low-profile, no-priority night on the broadcast networks, Ms. Zirinsky considers the competition for viewers fiercer this year because of such counterprogramming as ABC’s Saturday night college football games and specialty events.

“On Saturday night we fight like animals for every single eye,” said the “48 Hours” executive producer, who nonetheless declares: “Saturday night’s a goldmine.”

CBS Executive VP for Research and Planning David Poltrack said “60 Minutes” is part of an “interesting pattern” developing on the network’s Sunday night this year, when the Emmy-winning “Amazing Race” joined the lineup. Now there is the possibility of a sort of perfect ratings storm on Sundays between NFL coverage, “60 Minutes” and “Amazing Race.”

“That show has a very passionate, younger, upscale audience,” Mr. Poltrack said. Particularly on NFL runover nights, the lines between the audiences for football, “60 Minutes” and “Amazing Race” begin to blur as the lineup runs behind schedule. “Gradually these shows are cross-pollinating each other,” Mr. Poltrack said.

Mr. Fager focused on another dynamic: “the news we’ve made. There’s been a big story every week.”

He speaks for all executive producers when he says, “It’s always about how good are you next week.”