Newsmags find auds tuning out

Big Three hit ratings sag

As viewers begin to suffer from Osama overload following six weeks of terrorist-themed stories, some newsmag execs are slowly easing back into regular programming.

They may be taking their cues from the ratings.

The week of Oct. 15-21, the broadcast nets’ eight newsmags drooped, with six falling to season lows and the other two barely avoiding the same fate.

Their combined viewership (81.2 million) was down a steep 15% from the previous week’s 95.2 million.

Two weeks earlier — the first week of the new season (Sept. 24-30) — the newsmags combined for a season-high 97.2 million.

While they may downplay ratings, saying they’re insignificant during such a significant story, news execs are aware of the bottom line.

“You wouldn’t be getting a straight answer from anybody who said they’re not watching ratings,” says “60 Minutes II” exec producer Jeff Fager. “You want the biggest audience possible to see what you’re reporting. Of course, we’re keeping an eye on them.”

On Oct. 24, when “60 Minutes II” aired an interview with Paul McCartney — albeit one in which he talked about the events of Sept. 11 — the newsmag posted gains from the previous week.

“It was a refreshing change of pace. It had an uplifting quality to it,” Fager says.

That said, Fager has no plans to get back to business as usual anytime soon.

“We’re not doing anything but the war on terrorism. It’s not about choosing not to go in other directions,” he says. “At this point, it’s still not an option.”

“60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt is similarly hooked on stories surrounding terrorism and the war in Afghanistan.

“If you want to know how long we’re going to go on doing this, just get me Osama bin Laden’s phone number and I’ll tell you,” Hewitt says. “I don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring, let alone what Sunday is going to bring.”

In an effort to move away from stories revolving around the events of Sept. 11, Hewitt had been prepared to air a feature on painter Thomas Kinkade on Oct. 7. But when the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan that afternoon, he and his team had to shift into overdrive to update that night’s episode.

Hewitt is now unsure of how long it will be until he attempts to shift to another story.

“We’ll slowly phase back into stories that are important to other areas of our life,” he says. “You have a shit detector in this business, so you know when the moment is right.” Because “48 Hours” is the last newsmag of the week to air (Friday at 10), the show’s exec producer Susan Zirinsky felt that viewers would be ready for fresh material.

On Oct. 26, the CBS newsmag aired its first “non-terror” segment since Sept. 11 — an investigation into a quack doctor who got his “training” by performing surgery on a chicken.

“The feeling is that people need to see some other things. Of course, the problem is that everything else pales in comparison,” Zirinsky says.

NBC News’ “Dateline” exec producer David Corvo says, “There are so many interesting stories surrounding the events of Sept. 11, we haven’t had a desire to put anything else on.”

But, even “Dateline” is planning to inject some other stories into the mix — including an interview with the first beneficiary of an artificial heart.

And, both ABC News’ “20/20” and “Primetime Thursday” have made an effort to venture out of terrorist territory.

“20/20” recently did a piece on the opening of the Abba-themed Broadway show “Mamma Mia,” while “Primetime Thursday” devoted a segment to an interview with Drew Barrymore.

Meanwhile, ABC News is taking a risk by introducing yet another mag to an already cluttered news environment. This week, the net plans to launch “America 24/7,” a Friday newsmag that will respond to the events of Sept. 11.

The Alphabet has been mum on any information regarding the new show — just a week before launch, no exec producer or hosts had been named and even the title was tentative. The only info execs will divulge is that the program will look at the war against terrorism.

While competitors contemplate whether a single theme is enough to sustain a newsmag, ABC News senior exec producer of ABC Newsmagazines Victor Neufeld has no doubt that the topic warrants more attention.

“The events of Sept. 11 changed our lives permanently. It transcends almost everything else that has ever happened. There’s no shortage of angles and approaches one can take to it,” says Neufeld, who adds that he’s not worried about the dip in ratings for other newsmags.

“Reading ratings is not as relevant as how big the story is.”

(Rick Kissell contributed to this report.)

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