News the news for fall skeds

Mags set to take larger role in primetime

Newsies are set to play a bigger role in network primetime schedules next fall — at least that’s the word sweeping the biz on the eve of the network schedule announcements.

For the last few months reports have circulated that NBC’s “Dateline” will go to a fifth night, that CBS will clone “60 Minutes” and that ABC will merge and then expand its “20/20” and “PrimeTime Live” franchises.

As is usual in the runup to the network announcements, however, programming execs are suddenly extremely tight-lipped and media journalists ever more desperate to get at the facts. Expect the rumor mill to work overtime up until the week of May 18 when the wraps come off.

Speculation is particularly fevered this year because network programmers may, in fact, be on the verge of making some momentous changes: They are, after all, grappling with the future shape of TV news — not just with whether to pick up one sitcom rather than another.

One reason the focus on news is so intense is because network entertainment skeds are in trouble.

With the cost of comedies and dramas going through the roof, coupled with their apparent inability to deliver demos as efficiently as in days gone by, the webs are openly looking news-side to see if they might get more bang for their buck by filling primetime with fact — or newsmags, as it were.

The “to expand or not to expand” question concerning primetime newsmags is a major concern at all three of the big networks.

“NBC ‘Dateline’ envy” is driving ABC to consider merging “PrimeTime Live” with “20/20,” while moving CBS to risk incurring the wrath of “60 Minutes” exec producer Don Hewitt by possibly forcing him to birth a second evening of his ratings winner. NBC is also expected to announce a fifth night of “Dateline,” most likely to air Wednesdays.

“We’re flattered and slightly amused,” “Dateline” exec producer Neal Shapiro tells Daily Variety. “When we started out, colleagues at other networks said it couldn’t be done — there weren’t going to be enough stories. Now, it looks like they’re all trying to follow our lead.”

When the other nets see the “Dateline” franchise regularly winning its various timeslots, and on Mondays pulling in a season-to-date average rating-point high of 11.5, with a 20 share, it’s difficult to ignore.

“It’s silly when you don’t look at your competitors and say, ‘Gee, what’s working for them could be working for us …,’ ” CBS Television prexy/CEO Leslie Moonves said Monday on CNBC’s talker “Power Lunch.”

Of course, Moonves was referring to the “60 Minutes” question, the details of which are being kept under tight wraps. But, clearly, Moonves is keen to see his “premier newsmagazine” spawn.

Hewitt said Monday he’s “letting Les do the talking from now on,” but has been outspoken recently about not wanting to “dilute” his 30-year-old success story, which is still at the head of the newsmag pack this season with an average performance of 14.2/24.

Over at ABC, news chairman Roone Arledge and prexy David Westin are still deep in the throes of merger talks, fretting over what to call their possible hybrid (likely to be “20/20”), who would have control and what faces would be paired nightly.

“There are a lot of difficult issues to be sorted out (at ABC),” is the constant refrain of one source close to the negotiations. “Reporters are just beating this to death, but nothing’s been decided.”

Indeed, there are a number of difficult issues across the network landscape this skedding season, with nothing to bank on except ratings erosions in an ever-expanding channel universe. One of the biggest is what to do about the declining ratings of the network evening newscasts with the onslaught of 24-hour national and local cable news.

All the attention being paid to primetime newsmags, for some reporters, begs the question of what those in the upper echelons of “TV-ocracy” have planned for those flagship evening newscasts of the future. As Time mag put it last week, can a primetime network newscast be far off?

One network insider, however, points out that all the hype at the moment is more than a tad overblown.

“The evening news shows combine to get an 18 rating and a 40 share. People are watching during that time period and it is still hugely profitable for all three of us,” the exec says. “The evening news isn’t going anywhere soon.”

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