Time for a New Look for "60 Minutes"  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE ECONOMICS OF TELEVISION    
From AJR,   March 1996

Time for a New Look for "60 Minutes"   

Its ratings have dropped sharply. "Dateline NBC" is hot.

By Douglas Gomery
Douglas Gomery is the author of nine books on the economics and history of the media     


What a difference a year makes.

Ever since CBS showed the world how to create a successful, and profitable, newsmagazine, many clones have come and gone. But CBS' era of unparalleled success seems to be coming to a close. Last year "Dateline NBC" proved that the legendary newsmagazine can be successfully challenged.

"Dateline NBC" – not "60 Minutes" – is now the money-making machine, the envy of the industry, earning NBC News two-fifths of its profit of $100 million last year.

And NBC has become so confident with its success that it is adding a fourth night of "Dateline" – on Sundays – directly opposite "60 Minutes"!

How the mighty have fallen. This season, after a generation of continuous success, "60 Minutes" has dropped out of TV's prime time top 10. Its ratings are down a third since Mike Wallace and company lost their football lead-in in 1993.

ýxecutive Producer Don Hewitt and the cast of "60 Minutes" would rather forget this season. Not only has there been bad press from the fabled tobacco embarrassment (see "Fighting Back," January/February), but also open warfare between Wallace and Morley Safer, and between all the "60 Minutes" stars and their former network boss, Laurence Tisch.

While "60 Minutes" remains a solid, responsible broadcast, it does not command the headlines or generate the buzz of bygone days when Mike Wallace reported that A.H. Robins, Inc. ignored warnings about the dangers of the Dalkon Shield intrauterine device. Or when "Gunga Dan" Rather crawled into the war in Afghanistan in native garb. The last "60 Minutes" segment that caused a national stir aired in 1992, when Bill and Hillary Clinton did their post-Gennifer Flowers confessional.

Ûith the recent appointment of Andrew Heyward as president of CBS News, a "facelift" of "60 Minutes" has commenced. Even Don Hewitt has called for change. Look for the reinvention of "60 Minutes" in the spring of 1996.

Two strategies will be tried. The first will be to do more breaking news. This is in response to Dateline's success with the coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial.

The other tack will be to try to line up more headline interviews. Here the question is: Can the aging Mike Wallace revitalize "60 Minutes" and return it to its glory days by creating a hipper, '90s-style interview?

Not all the causes of the recent decline should be laid at an ineffective "60 Minutes" style. The slide started when former CBS head Laurence Tisch proved cheap and gave away the NFL to Rupert Murdoch, depriving "60 Minutes" of its fabled lead-in.

Tisch also let slip longtime CBS affiliate relationships and suddenly "60 Minutes" found itself on channel 46 in Atlanta, channel 62 in Detroit and channel 58 in Milwaukee.

The consequences have been dramatic, with ratings down across the board. In Milwaukee, for instance, "60 Minutes" fell from a 21 rating during a representative week in October 1994 to a seven rating for the same week in 1995.

New CBS owner Westinghouse has promised to help, but in its first move signed up Bill Cosby for a new sitcom. Go with Hollywood, not the news. Standard & Poor's understood and lowered CBS' bond rating to the status of a sick company.

On the other side of the newsmagazine war, NBC has been the big winner. For years it tried and failed to clone "60 Minutes." The bottom came when "Dateline" staged the infamous explosion of a General Motors truck.

Now "Dateline" sets the pace – three nights a week. More flexible than its rivals, "Dateline" has presented five-part stories over several nights, and then has turned to single topics to fill its hour.

The "Dateline" formula seems clear. The promotion of a single brand name and reliance upon breaking news have led to ratings growth of more than a third from last year. Spreading star salaries across three production hours has kept costs down.

In the past, comedies after football have not worked well for NBC. Another edition of "Dateline NBC" will cost about half as much as the network paid for those Hollywood products, and "Dateline's" younger demographics should work well opposite "60 Minutes."

The third contestant, ABC, has a new owner, Disney, which loves the rising ratings tide of "20/20" and "PrimeTime Live."

In particular, Disney executives relish their TV newsmagazines' Hollywood-like star system. Like any Disney contract player, Barbara Walters gets thousands of fan letters a week, though more are about her appearance than about the content of the stories she reports on for "20/20."

The genre of the newsmagazine has become a staple of television, and will remain so. Network news divisions now make lots of money, and newsmagazines lead this drive toward the bottom line. l

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