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From AJR,   November 1994  issue

Eclipsing the Nightly News    

Lucrative and widely watched, television's mushrooming newsmagazines are becoming the major business of network news.

By David Zurawik and Christina Stoehr


By Unknown
     

In his most serious voice, Dan Rather asks, "Are we alone?" as a picture of UFOs fills the screen. Diane Sawyer leans forward and bores in on Julia Roberts, asking the really tough question, "If you were designing heaven, what would you put in it?" Deborah Norville urges viewers to call a 900-number and vote on whether O.J. Simpson should be executed if found guilty of murder: "We'd like you to make a life or death decision."

This is what network news has become.

There has been much network bashing for what some call the "tabloidization" of the news – the seemingly endless fascination with Michael Jackson, Tonya Harding, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, the Bobbitts, the Menendez brothers and O.J. Simpson.

But even more troubling is the fact that prime time newsmagazines, like "48 Hours," "Turning Point" and "Dateline NBC," have replaced the evening newscasts as the centerpiece of the networks' news divisions. While proponents of the newsmagazines say no harm is being done, the proliferation of the magazines has hurt the news business in a number of ways.

Because the magazines have become such big moneymakers for the networks, they, not the regular nightly newscasts, now have first call on resources, including talent and money. And they may ultimately be hurting the credibility of broadcast news in general as Tonya and O.J. get as much, if not more, airtime as more important world problems and show business priorities take the place of serious newsgathering. That's not likely to change. Even after the exploding truck debacle embarrassed the producers of "Dateline NBC," Michael Gartner was the only one who got hurt by the scandal. The network and the show have continued to flourish.

It didn't happen overnight. In fact, some say the process actually started 20 years ago when "60 Minutes" first began turning a profit for CBS. But it's now reached the point where you can forget Walter Cronkite's "And that's the way it is.." The new slogan of network news is more like the promotional motto for ABC's "Turning Point": "It feels like a movie, but it's real." Understand this concept, and you'll start to appreciate the essential importance of Tonya, Nancy, Lorena, Eric, Lyle and O.J. You'll also see why Diane Sawyer is worth at least $7 million a year to ABC.

"It's absolutely true that newsmagazines, not the nightly newscasts, have become the primary business of the network news divisions," says Peter Herford, who worked at CBS News for 26 years as a producer on both "The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite" and "60 Minutes."

"In fact, with the exception of ABC News, which is sitting atop the pile right now, I think CBS News and, to a certain extent, NBC News would be delighted to do something else with 6:30 to 7:00 or 7:00 to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Fridays," he says.

Douglas Gomery, who teaches the economics of broadcasting at the University of Maryland College of Journalism, agrees. "The networks found a way to actually make money on news with these magazines instead of losing it with their nightly newscasts. Of course, making more magazines has become their primary business. That's the way business works."

Ed Turner, executive vice president at CNN, says it has reached the point "where newsmagazines have taken the place of serious newsgathering" in broadcast journalism. That's a huge change and one that journalists need to think about, he says. "Sure newsmagazines make money," he says. "They make money because they are so efficient; they only cover the stories that they are going to put on the air. But that's not hard newsgathering.

"In hard news, you go and stake out Somalia, go and live in Bosnia, plop down in Haiti with a crew, producers and reporters and follow the story as long as it takes. Let's not forget here what serious newsgathering is all about. It's going to unscripted events where you don't have control and seeing them play through to some kind of end. It's not easy. It's not cheap. It's not a lot of giggles. It's understandable to see why magazines are so attractive to the networks."

Network news executives are reluctant to say that their evening newscasts are no longer the heart and soul of their operations, but all acknowledge that the role of newsmagazines continues to grow.

"I think saying that the newsmagazines are our primary business is a touch overstated," says Andrew Lack, president of NBC News. "My own feeling, and I think this is true at the other two networks, is that we have not taken any of the resources out of those traditional flagship broadcasts... I would rather say that our business has just expanded, and the expansion is in prime time with the newsmagazines."

Alan Wurtzel, the senior vice president for newsmagazines at ABC News, concurs. "Our newsmagazines are additive. These are programs that add more news out there. It's not as though the programs are taking away the resources or airtime of what people consider to be traditional news."

Despite Lack and Wertzel's assertions, the networks clearly have taken resources from the evening newscasts and shifted them to the magazines. With the networks pouring more and more money into expanding the newsmagazines, it's no wonder that the dynamics of network news have also changed.

In two seasons, the number of prime time hours for newsmagazines on the four broadcast networks – ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox – has doubled from five to 10. (There are also a number of syndicated newsmagazines that air on network affiliates, like "Inside Edition," "A Current Affair" and "Hard Copy," but these are not produced by the networks.)

This has helped the bottom line. Advertising revenue for the network magazines climbed by 64 percent from $670 million during the 1992-93 network season to $1.1 billion last year, according to Broadcasting & Cable magazine.

In September 1993, the fall season started with eight hours of prime time newsmagazine programming. The networks began this season with nine hours of newsmagazines. By January, that number is expected to rise to 11.

Reflecting how hungry the networks are for magazines, NBC's fall schedule includes three editions a week of "Dateline NBC," anchored by Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips. This is the newsmagazine that some critics said was sure to ruin the news division's credibility and cost the network millions of dollars in lost advertising as a result of the test crash of a General Motors pickup truck, which it rigged for a segment broadcast in November 1992.

"Dateline NBC" did cost NBC News President Michael Gartner his job, but it has since made millions for the network, between $5 million and $10 million last year, according to conservative industry estimates. When the network tested a twice-a-week "Dateline" plan over the summer, it found that on some weeks both editions of the newsmagazine finished in the top 20 Nielsen shows.

(The Wednesday edition, which was added in October, replaces "Now With Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric." It's mainly a title change, designed in part to lighten the workload for Couric and Brokaw. The two will report stories, conduct interviews and sometimes anchor on "Dateline," according to Lack.)

And "Dateline" is not even considered a regular season ratings hit. It finished sixth in ratings among the newsmagazines last season behind "60 Minutes" (CBS), "20/20" (ABC), "PrimeTime Live" (ABC), "Turning Point" (ABC) and "48 Hours" (CBS), in that order.

The new ratings hit is "Turning Point," which debuted March 9 with Diane Sawyer interviewing Charles Manson and several women who participated in the Manson murders. "Turning Point" finished last season as the highest-rated magazine among adults 18-49, prime time's target audience, and the second-highest among adults 25-54, the main audience for news programs. In the latter category, "Turning Point" was bested only by "60 Minutes," a newsmagazine that has contributed between $50 million and $60 million in profits annually to CBS News since at least the early 1980s.

There were two casualties last year: "Front Page" on Fox and "Street Stories" on CBS. "Front Page" aired weekly; "Street Stories" was aired occasionally.

But even their demise illustrates the continued vitality of the genre. Fox immediately went to work on a new magazine show. It hopes to have it on the air by the end of the year, possibly on Sundays following NFL football, according to Paul A. Gendreau, vice president for entertainment publicity. "Street Stories" was replaced by "America Tonight," with Deborah Norville and Dana King. "America" was given a weekly run on CBS this summer with an eye toward using it as a midseason replacement, according to Joe Peyronnin, vice president at CBS News.

The main reason networks love newsmagazines is that they are the most efficient way the networks make money with news.

"When you think about it, newsgathering for newscasts is inherently inefficient. But at newsmagazines, we only go out and shoot stuff that's going to be on our show. Then we put it on and sell commercials to pay for it," says Andrew Heyward, executive producer of the "CBS Evening News with Dan Rather and Connie Chung." Heyward has extensive experience in nightly news and newsmagazines; he was formerly executive producer of "48 Hours" and "Eye to Eye with Connie Chung."

"Select your target, apply your resources and generate immediate results... Newsmagazines are a highly efficient way to amortize and maximize resources," Heyward says. "It's the newsmagazines that have maintained the viability and profitability of the news divisions."

It costs between $400,000 and $500,000 to produce an hour-long newsmagazine versus a minimum of about $1.4 million paid to studios to produce an hour-long drama like "NYPD Blue" or "Murder She Wrote." Furthermore, in many cases the newsmagazines earned better ratings and, therefore, more advertising dollars than the hour-long dramas.

The fact that these shows are relatively cheap to produce with the potential for greater profit make them irresistible to the corporate chieftains running the networks. But the networks also have found more ways to make money off the magazines: foreign distribution.

Collectively, the three networks will make about $100 million from their shows this year in a growing international market, according to Broadcasting & Cable magazine. NBC, for example, shows "Dateline" on its recently acquired SuperChannel, an advertiser-supported channel reaching 56 million European viewers. CBS News sells the right to use the "60 Minutes" logo and program format to international buyers, who then produce their own stories. The network also sells "60 Minutes," "48 Hours" and "Eye to Eye" internationally.

T%e biggest contribution from newsmagazines this season might be the money they earn for their network affiliates. This is in large part due to the practice of "stripping," an industry term for having the same show or type of show on at the same time each night. You're going to be hearing it a lot in terms of network programming strategy.

Each of the Big Three networks would like to have a newsmagazine on at 10 p.m. Monday through Friday as a lead-in to its affiliates' late local news. When "ABC Monday Night Football" ends and "Day One" rejoins the regular schedule in January, ABC will be closest to that goal, with newsmagazines on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights.

"The 10 o'clock strip is a huge thing, an amazing phenomenon," says CBS' Heyward. "The affiliates love it because it feeds a news-oriented audience into local news."

And why should the networks care about local stations making money off the late news? For one thing, the networks own some of those stations in the largest markets, so money made on the local news in New York or Los Angeles is money in the networks' own pockets.

But more important is the game of high-stakes musical chairs that Fox owner Rupert Murdoch set off in May. He showed how fragile the networks' confederation of affiliates can be when he raided affiliates from CBS, NBC and ABC in cities such as Detroit and Cleveland. In most cases, the network-affiliate agreements can be terminated with a six-month notice from either side.

Because the majority of local stations make more money off their late local news than any other broadcast, a network that can help its affiliates make money at 11 p.m. is a network that is going to have the best chance of holding them.

In January, WMAR-TV, the Scripps Howard-owned NBC affiliate in Baltimore, will become an ABC affiliate.

"One of the things that makes me happiest about joining ABC is that strip of newsmagazines that it has at 10 o'clock..," says Joe Lewin, WMAR's vice president and general manager. "I think it's going to be a great lead-in to our local news. I'm just delighted."

The 10 p.m. strip could turn out to be one of the most important programming stories of the season. Ten o'clock weeknights is when adult dramas like "Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law" have traditionally played. This fall on ABC, there's only "NYPD Blue" at 10 p.m. on Tuesdays. Will networks even bother trying to develop adult dramas next year if ABC's plan works and the network shows it can make more money with newsmagazines in that time period and make its affiliates happier?

"One of the ironies with ABC, of course, is that ABC has picked up a strategy that CBS wanted to use when it tried to lure Diane Sawyer to CBS a year or so ago," says Herford, the former CBS producer who now teaches broadcast news at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

"Remember how CBS was promising her a broadcast every night of the week? Well, ABC just about has it.

"And her salary, by the way, is cheap when you consider that it's amortized over several programs," Herford adds, alluding to Sawyer's highly publicized salary (reportedly $7 million a year). Sawyer already coanchors ABC's "Turning Point" and "PrimeTime Live," and will be joining "Day One" this year in its move to 10 p.m. in hopes of boosting that show's ratings.

Yet Sawyer and her salary are perfect examples of how the networks have taken away resources from the evening newscasts. They are taking news anchors and correspondents. With the arrival of Peter Jennings on "Turning Point" this spring, all of the nightly news anchors now do some double duty in prime time.

Furthermore, many of the correspondents who used to be featured on the evening newscasts – like Bernard Goldberg at CBS, Fred Francis at NBC and Sam Donaldson at ABC – are now on the magazines, not the newscasts.

And then there are the producers, like Susan Zirinsky, who was the model for the character played by Holly Hunter in the movie "Broadcast News." She used to be the Washington producer for "The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather." Now she is the senior producer at "Eye to Eye With Connie Chung."

"It just stands to logic that resources are being diverted or realigned. And it's not just financial," says Howard Rosenberg, Pulitzer-Prize-winning television critic for the Los Angeles Times. "In terms of personnel, a lot of the better people who used to work for the nightly newscasts are now working on these newsmagazines. It's unquestionable that resources of all kinds are being diverted from what used to be the Bethlehem stars of network news divisions, those nightly newscasts."

As for airtime, the evening newscasts now routinely carry reports that essentially plug features on that night's newsmagazines – like the story on Tonya Harding heading for the Olympics that "The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather and Connie Chung" carried on February 10. It showed Chung on the plane with Harding and announced the exclusive interview that "Eye to Eye With Connie Chung" would have that night. All three networks routinely do such cross-plugging.

Says Rosenberg, "You look at the shows that get promoted. Who are the networks promoting, the evening news? Please. They're promoting what they consider to be a more important part of their bottom line, these newsmagazines."

But CNN's Ed Turner says that distinctions must be made among the magazines when discussing them.

"I have no case against newsmagazines," he says. "I emphasize news, because in my mind there are only two of those – '60 Minutes' and '20/20.' Most of the others that you're seeing are a combination of news as entertainment and entertainment as news."

Historically, there are now three generations of newsmagazines. "60 Minutes" and "20/20" are the first, "48 Hours" and "PrimeTime Live" the second, with all the rest that have signed on recently forming a third generation.

In terms of voice and style, there are differences, too. For "48 Hours," it's an in-the-eye-of-the-storm, gritty, cinema veritι style. "PrimeTime Live" has borrowed the hidden camera trick from "60 Minutes" and used it again and again to enhance the sense that it is somehow on our side in the "us against them" dialectic of its promotional campaign.

In terms of content, the same magazines can differ week to week or segment to segment.

"Some of the magazines at least still maintain – and not without some justification – that they're a mixed bag," says Herford. "There are times when they're the old white knight in shining armor and they are out there doing God's work. There are other times when they are doing Tonya and Nancy. And that can be on the same broadcast. So, it depends what broadcast you're looking at, what week and what the flow of news is,"

But generalizations can be made about them, says Everette E. Dennis, author of "The Media Society" and executive director of the Freedom Forum Center for Media Studies in New York City.

"The spectacle of Connie Chung and the interviews with Tonya Harding and Heidi Fleiss come to mind – having to do that to function within the networks today," he says. "There's a compromising that goes on." Dennis says that although some feature fluff pieces while others feature more serious stories, "in the end there's a kind of leveling off in and among the two of them. In the O.J. Simpson spectacle, for example, I couldn't tell one from the other except they were interviewing different lawyers."

Prime time is an environment totally lacking in traditional journalistic values. It is a world of multiple docudramas about Amy Fisher and the Menendez brothers, where one contradicts the other, yet all are presented to the public as true. It is a carnival midway where showbiz values and ratings rule, and truth is all but irrelevant.

If the networks demand that their newsmagazines compete with "Melrose Place," the magazines are going to be shaped by those values. They are going to gravitate to Tonya, Manson and O.J. And, when "Eye to Eye With Connie Chung" gets its highest rating for the year with Tonya Harding as it did this year, and "Turning Point" gets its highest ratings with Manson and Simpson, you can bet there are going to be more and more of those kinds of stories – just as there are.

"To see what they're doing with those magazines, all you had to do was look at what they did with the O.J. Simpson circus," says Rosenberg. "Every magazine show known to humankind either led with O.J. Simpson or had a substantial O.J. Simpson story – the bulk of which was total rubbish, just filling space, just getting O.J. Simpson's name on the air so they could hope to attract viewers."

And what was the result of such programming? Record ratings for prime time newsmagazines for the week of June 20 through 26, for example. Out of more than 100 prime time shows, four of the top 10 for that week were newsmagazines – with ABC's "Turning Point" the highest rated show on all of prime time that week.

όhe networks' defense of their newsmagazines' content is summarized by ABC's Wurtzel, who says, "As to the criticism about whether this is real news with a capital N, it's as much real news as the Style section of the Washington Post or, you know, the real second or third feature section of a newspaper is. It serves a somewhat different purpose day to day, although, obviously, on a hot breaking story, it will in some ways try to break news as well. But, for the most part, it is more feature driven than it is hard news."

That might qualify as "enough said" in terms of the changing dynamics of network news, but the change is even more severe than the shift from hard news to features.

It involves news values. For example, in reviewing what he thought were good and bad episodes of "Eye to Eye With Connie Chung" this past season, Heyward said, "We came a cropper with Heidi Fleiss."

Was Heyward admitting it was a mistake to do an interview with the woman known as the "Hollywood Madam" – an interview that mainly resulted in Fleiss getting the chance to plug her pajama business in prime time?

No, the idea was fine, it was the timing that was bad, Heyward explained. "By the time we interviewed her, the fever had cooled."

Chung's interview with Tonya Harding, on the other hand, was good by the standards of newsmagazines. "Tonya came at the height of Tonya-mania," Heyward said.

Getting Fleiss or Harding to do an interview with you – whether or not they say anything of interest or importance – has become the measure of excellence in TV newsmagazine journalism. That's bad enough, but the larger community of journalism seems to be embracing that value, if the celebration of newsmagazine anchorwomen and their greatest "gets" in the August issue of Vanity Fair is any indication.

At a press conference in California to promote the expansion of "Dateline NBC," Jane Pauley proudly told the nation's TV critics of her "big get," Michael Fay, who had come to be known as the Caning Boy.

"Most of the stories I do are not what you would call those [sensational] stories,..." Pauley said. "But every now and then, yes, there is a story that is wildly competitive. And the Michael Fay story was certainly one of those."

There are, of course, larger cultural implications worth noting when you have 10 or 12 of these magazines reaching tens of millions of viewers each week. For example, Dennis suggests that they might be making it difficult for some of us to simply think straight.

"The worst excess, I think, is to constantly try to make the trivial important by generalizing from the singular instance to the whole," Dennis says. "And I think the O.J. Simpson case is the absolute epitome of that, because it's taking one case of one, bizarre, sick happening, regardless of who did it, and saying, 'Well, this is a statement about America, it's a statement about spousal abuse, it's a statement about how we handle heroes.' And I think it's none of those things... But the TV magazines are filled with that."

Dennis says he still believes there will ultimately be a "sorting out" in the number of TV newsmagazines. And even the network executives agree with him. Their analyses are all based on the history of other successful TV genres, like westerns.

But given the newsmagazines' performance in recent months, no one sees that happening soon.

"Some tell us there are too many magazines," says NBC's Lack. "And we tell them that's right, the other guys ought to cancel theirs."

CBS' Heyward says, "The era of exponential growth for newsmagazines is over. But you can still make millions of dollars a year with a newsmagazine that comes in second or even third in its time period. And that's just awfully attractive."

So attractive that newsmagazines may not follow the curve of other types of prime time programs. Maybe we have seen the future of network news and it is an anchorwoman urging us to pay 50 cents to call in a vote on whether a former football star should be executed. Perhaps TV newsmagazines will never go away. Was there ever a prime time TV program that lasted as long or made as much money as "60 Minutes"?

"You always come back to economics," says Columbia University's Peter Herford. "And that's why, after all is said and done, the main business of network news has become not trying to provide coverage of the world, but rather trying to clone '60 Minutes.' " l

David Zurawik is the television critic for the Sun in Baltimore. Christina Stoehr is a former television critic for the Milwaukee Sentinel and Detroit Free Press. They wrote about TV newsmagazines in "Money Changes Everything" in our April 1993 issue.