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Newsmagazines Show Resilience in Strike-Damaged Season

May 23, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Tropical Birds

“60 Minutes” is expanding some pieces to air on cable, including “Garden of Eden,” about the primeval forest of New Guinea’s Foja Mountains.

The writers strike-afflicted 2007-08 broadcast season confronted network television newsmagazine shows with the same viewer flu that hit entertainment shows.
“All the newsmagazines are down,” said David Sloane, executive producer of Friday night staples “20/20” and “Primetime,” which now appears as specials and a limited-run summer series on ABC. (Three new boutique runs of “Primetime” launch the week of June 25.)
But the newsmagazines’ executive producers said their programs proved more resistant to the second-half audience erosion that produced an average 10% decline in overall prime-time audiences.
Mr. Sloane conceded that reading “20/20” ratings on Saturday mornings wasn’t always fun during the broadcast season that concluded May 21. In its Friday night home slot, “20/20” averaged 6.5 million viewers, a 13.5% drop season-to-season. It lost some 678,000 viewers in the 18-49 demographic that ABC holds most important, even the older-skewing magazine shows.
CBS’ “60 Minutes,” the granddaddy of newsmagazines and by far the most-watched, averaged 13 million viewers, a 1.8% decline season-to-season. Some 4.4 million of those viewers were in the prime news demo of 25-54, down about 150,000 season-to-season.
It’s more difficult to get a concrete season-to-season comparison for “Dateline NBC,” because the magazine has become a spring-and-summer series that plays on numerous nights of the week.
Comparing Friday nights to Friday nights this season, “Dateline” averaged 7 million viewers, down about 535,000 season-to-season. In the 35-54 demo, “Dateline” averaged 3.2 million viewers, down about 121,000 viewers.
Another newsmagazine that can pop up all over the prime-time schedule is CBS’ “48 Hours Mystery.” In its Saturday night hour, it averaged 6.5 million viewers last season, down 971,000 viewers from 2006-07. In the 25-54 demo, it averaged 2.8 million viewers, a loss of 536,000 viewers.
“I call this year a do-over,” said Susan Zirinsky, “48 Hours” executive producer. She said the newsmagazine, which arguably has evolved more than its counterparts over its two-decade-plus lifespan, started the season strong in spite of being delayed 47 minutes by its college basketball lead-in. “I feel like I have a strong audience who comes and finds us wherever we are,” she said.
“We had a very successful year. People still think of us as the place to go,” said Jeff Fager, executive producer of “60 Minutes,” the only newsmagazine to finish in the top 30 of all prime-time programs. The show took the No. 23 spot this season. Mr. Fager said that in his four years at the helm of “60,” “This is the one. … I’m really proud of this year.”
“60 Minutes” will convert to all-high-definition starting with the pieces it produces over the summer for next season. CBS’ “48 Hours” will convert later, but has already done some high-def programs.
“20/20” also will convert to high-def for next season. Mr. Sloan said the switch represents a challenge for news organizations, not just because of the hardware involved but also because of the need to upconvert any archival material to be used in high-def pieces.
There is no conversion date for “Dateline.”
Mr. Fager said “60 Minutes” is not immune to the need to look for ways to keep costs down as it maintains the production values and travel required by the stories its audience expects.
The magazine is in the final stages of negotiations with a major cable outlet to produce four off-network hours, a deal that will help amortize the broadcast’s costs. One of the “60 Minutes” pieces that will be expanded to an hour is the visually stunning “Garden of Eden,” in which correspondent Bob Simon visited the Foja Mountains of New Guinea, where the pristine, primeval forest is so undisturbed that exotic new species of birds have been spotted.
The prince of amortized costs is “Dateline,” whose programming repeats largely on sister cable channel MSNBC. Executive Producer David Corvo said those runs can accrue an additional 250,000 viewers each time.
In its second year of posting content on a Yahoo! microsite, “60 Minutes” material is averaging about 15 million streams per month, Mr. Fager said. That dwarfs the clicks “60 Minutes” segments get on CBSNews.com.
“48 Hours,” which gets off-net runs on Discovery, Ion and WE, also has produced three books related to some of its episodes. The fourth of four contracted books is headed to the publisher soon.
Ms. Zirinsky said the show’s stories still attract a good deal of interest from potential moviemakers, but she, like her counterparts, knows that “the TV movie is dead.”
“48 Hours,” which was heavily utilized by CBS schedulers during the 100-day Writers Guild of America strike, is the most aggressive about trying new forms of storytelling and about producing content for the entertainment division of its network.
The magazine spun out fact-based Web episodes that correlated with “Jericho,” the post-nuclear drama that was resurrected after its first cancellation only to be axed again at the end of its shortened second season. Ms. Zirinsky once again worked with Jules and Gedeon Naudet, with whom she produced the award-winning “9/11,” to produce the special “In God’s Name” for CBS Entertainment last season.
She considers “48 Hours” the reality show for CBS. “There is definitely a place for us at the network table,” she said.
Looking ahead to next season, she promises contributions from an even wider array of CBS News correspondents who relish the chance to stretch for an hour while telling a richer story.
Mr. Sloane, with his characteristic wit, said he’s looking forward to following ABC’s popular “Wife Swap” and “Supernanny” with their compatible lead-in next fall. “Finally, we’re going to have a [demo] lead-in with a 2 in front of it,” he said.

16 Comments

  1. Newsmagazines aren’t down because of the writers’ strike. They’re down because they’re largely crap and the audience knows it. “60” is the only show doing actual journalism, and they’re roughly flat year-to-year. “Dateline” and “20/20” are embarrassments. NBC doesn’t seem to care. But ABC oughta cancel 20/20 and put a pared-down staff to work producing six quality documentary hours a year, one every couple of months.

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