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 AJR  Columns

From AJR,   March 1999  issue

The End Of the Golden Age?   

While their ranks continue to swell, TV newsmagazines' ratings are sliding.


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


J UST WHEN YOU THOUGHT the airwaves could take no more newsmagazines, this season delivered new editions of "Dateline NBC" and "20/20" and even a clone of the mighty "60 Minutes."
With "60 Minutes II" grabbing higher ratings than any other show on its Wednesday night debut in January, there would seem to be reason to be joyous in TV newsmagazineland. Yet, a closer look suggests we might be at the end of the Golden Age of the form "60 Minutes" spawned some three decades ago.
During the first half of this TV season, which began in September and runs to May, ratings seemed to have stagnated for newsmagazines. Generally, the numbers for the Monday and Tuesday editions of "Dateline" and the Wednesday and Friday editions of "20/20" are down from last season. Even "60 Minutes" is off, requiring a clone to amortize costs and dashes of questionable sensationalism to boost ratings.
When CBS agreed in January 1998 to pay $500 million a year to rejoin the ranks of NFL broadcasters, executives predicted the huge football audiences would instantly assist the whole network's Nielsen ratings, particularly reinvigorating "60 Minutes' " numbers. Yet ratings for the show were down 3 percent for the first eight weeks of the TV season, when compared to the same weeks of the previous season.
For the beginning of this season, only CBS' "48 Hours" is doing better when compared against last season's numbers. But that boost came only because Jerry Seinfeld left the air and the fabled NBC Thursday night lineup lost its luster, allowing "48 Hours" to pick up some of the slack.
More and more newsmagazines appear to be chasing a fixed pot of gold. From September 1997 to August 1998, for example, advertisers buying time on major newsmagazines spent a collective $785 million; I would speculate that this number would not rise much this season, even with all the new editions.
The loyal fans remain loyal, and new viewers come on board only for the sensational. "60 Minutes," the industry pace setter, has always done best with the well-off, more mature folks. If you are American Express, you want to advertise on "60 Minutes" because potential clients more than likely are watching. Survey after survey indicates that those in households with income of $50,000 a year or more regularly tune in to the show.
"Dateline" long ago conceded this audience to "60 Minutes." It instead seeks out the young--particularly 18- to 34-year-olds--selling advertising time to fast food outlets such as McDonald's and Pizza Hut.
Yet all compete for the same type of story: unraveling a real-life mystery, or landing a titillating celebrity interview. Unfortunately, the bar has been lowered by all-scandal, syndicated products. "Inside Edition" and "Hard Copy" taught newsmagazines how to craft a much more "exciting" news show--such as how to make a simple pet rescue into a 15-minute drama.
Star power also seems to be fading. Tellingly, last season's "Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel" on CBS spotlighted Gumbel and finished 84th in the Nielsen ratings.
TV newsmagazines have become so formulaic that the average viewers know if they don't like the story they're watching, they can flip to another show and come back 15 minutes later.
Viewers channel-surf for what they might not admit to watching, but can't turn away from. That helps explain the shift by some shows to sensationalism. On November 22, "60 Minutes" succumbed. Jack Kevorkian administered a lethal injection to a terminally ill patient on the show. The death of Thomas Youk, who suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease, brought high ratings for the newsmagazine during the crucial November sweeps ratings period.
The show garnered a 15.3 rating and a 24 share, meaning that close to a quarter of the households watching television during that time had their attention focused on "60 Minutes." The show's recent average had been a 14.4 rating and a 22 share. (One rating point equals 994,000 homes; a share is the percentage of TV sets in use.)
To regularly spike up ratings during crucial sweeps months, look for "60 Minutes," its offshoot and their two dozen or so brethren to dramatically confront a host of controversial moral and ethical issues long thought unsuitable for prime-time television.
Because newsmagazines are relatively cheap to produce, they will not go away soon. A newsmagazine costs roughly half what a Hollywood sitcom or drama does. So the profits, while not growing, are considerable.
And since maximizing profits is at the core of TV economics, like them or not, TV newsmagazines will continue to be an important part of the business.