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From AJR,   August/September 2005  issue

Past Their Prime   

Their audience shrinking, TV newsmagazines go tabloid.


By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (potter@newslab.org) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.     

Who wanted the surgeon's wife dead? Are more older women dating younger men? What motivates a celebrity stalker? The questions look like something you might see in a supermarket checkout line, but in fact they were recently asked and answered by network news programs on CBS, ABC and NBC. This is what has become of the primetime newsmagazines. One of the few remaining venues for long-form broadcast journalism has gone down the tabloid trail, and there's no reason to believe it's ever coming back.

The genre has been around since 1968, when "60 Minutes" started ticking on CBS, but newsmagazines really took off in the 1990s (see "Eclipsing the Nightly News," November 1994). Cheaper to produce than sitcoms or dramas and popular with viewers, by the end of the decade magazines were in the primetime lineup six nights out of seven.

With documentaries practically extinct at the network level, the newsmagazines helped to fill the gap with award-winning investigative work. NBC's "Dateline" examined shady practices by the insurance industry. ABC's "20/20" revealed abuses in Russian orphanages. CBS' "48 Hours" took an extended look at the abortion issue, and "60 Minutes Wednesday" reported on AIDS in Africa.

Just three years ago, the big three networks were producing a total of 12 hour-long magazine shows a week, more than half of which ranked in the top 50 in audience size. But primetime exposure came at a price. Airing in competition with entertainment programming, the newsmagazines faced increasing pressure to keep the ratings up and the revenue high. Several were dropped from the schedule, and the rest turned increasingly soft.

This spring, in what felt like a watershed moment, ABC's "Primetime Live" devoted an entire hour during the May ratings period to a lame "investigation" of an alleged sex scandal at the top-rated show on television, Fox's "American Idol." "Primetime" doubled its typical rating that night but quickly sank back to the bottom of the pile, finishing the season ranked 95th.

Other newsmagazines tried to hook viewers during sweeps by shilling for their own networks' popular programs. "Dateline" reported on a "Saturday Night Live" appearance by "Idol" judge Paula Abdul. "60 Minutes" offered up a gushy profile of Ray Romano, the star of CBS's top-rated comedy, "Everybody Loves Raymond."

In spite of the pandering, the average newsmagazine audience this season was down 10 percent from the year before. Of the eight shows remaining on the schedule, only one cracked the top 50. "60 Minutes Wednesday" was canceled after finishing 69th. CBS Chairman Les Moonves said the decision had nothing to do with the program's flawed story on President Bush's National Guard service. "It was the oldest-skewing show on the schedule," Moonves told reporters, "down in every single [ratings] category."

Susan Zirinsky, executive producer of CBS' "48 Hours Mystery," believes the problem facing the newsmagazines is simple. "It's not about the entertainment division. It's people," she says. "The audience isn't there to pay attention to the serious stories.... Cable has given viewers interested in niche topics a place to find the hour documentary." Once a groundbreaking documentary program, "48 Hours" now focuses almost exclusively on true crime, with show titles that sound more like CSI reruns than news programs: "Prime Suspect," "A Question of Murder," "Blood Feud." "I morph into hard news when events warrant," Zirinsky says, insisting that if a story is big enough to justify an hour in prime time, "all we have to do is ask."

But those stories apparently don't come along often. In the past couple of years, only a few programs have stood out from the pack, including "Dateline's" investigation of racial profiling, "Primetime's" exposť of flaws in port security, and the "60 Minutes Wednesday" exclusive on abuse at Abu Ghraib. The rest were mostly forgettable, unless you count the recent "Primetime Live" interview with Brad Pitt, in which the movie star responded to questions about his personal life by trying to shift the focus to poverty and AIDS in Africa. "I understand it's about entertainment," Pitt told Diane Sawyer, "but, man, it's misguided a bit, isn't it?"

Right you are, Brad. Small wonder that viewers who want substance switch to cable or PBS, where "Frontline" routinely tackles complex, important subjects like the al Qaeda threat in Europe or how Wal-Mart is transforming America. "Frontline" Director of Brand Strategy Kito Robinson says the program's ratings are up more than 20 percent over the past five years. "What we hear from viewers is that we go places no one else can," she says. (The audience is still smaller than that of the lowest-ranked network newsmagazine.)

Seven newsmagazines will still be around this fall, but "60 Minutes" Producer Jeff Fager believes the long-term prognosis for most of them isn't good. Given that what they've been putting on the air lately isn't very good either, that prospect doesn't seem nearly as sad as it once might have been.