This has been one season that Don Hewitt, Mike Wallace, Andy Rooney and the rest of the millionaire curmudgeons at “60 Minutes” would rather forget. The tobacco imbroglio, open warfare between Wallace and Morley Safer, and Rooney grousing about ex-CBS chairman Larry Tisch – none of it has been pretty to watch. Underlining all the dysfunctional drama in the “60 Minutes” family is that the ratings for the once invulnerable newsmag have tumbled by nearly a third in just two seasons since CBS lost rights to the NFL.

Those circumstances have led the brass at NBC News to view the bloodied “60 Minutes” as ripe for a challenge from a fourth edition of “Dateline NBC,” according to 30 Rock insiders. Despite a strong NFL lead-in, NBC has gotten nowhere with the sitcoms it runs against “60 Minutes” – “Brotherly Love” and the recently canceled “Minor Adjustments” (which was picked up by the year-old UPN network).

Another “Dateline” would cost about half of what the network pays to put sitcoms or a drama in the slot. And a Sunday “Dateline” could do all originals, while more than a third of “60 Minutes” is repackaged material.

Still another scenario would have NBC move the Wednesday edition of “Dateline” to Sunday and put an action hour in that slot. That would please NBC Entertainment, which is loath to cede another hour of prime time to the news division, but that may be wishful thinking since the newsmag has performed well on Wednesdays.

If 30 Rock greenlights a challenge to “60 Minutes,” it could occur as early as March. An NBC spokesman declined comment.

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