Local newscasts that recap the day minus weather, sports and a sign-off piece about a Rottweiler that fell in love with a kitten have lost additional news time in recent years, sacrificed to the obligatory “meet the stars of” segment connected to that night’s primetime fare.Yet scanning the supposed big leagues of national broadcast journalism, look who’s shamelessly shilling now. Ripping a dubious page from the local news playbook, network news divisions increasingly function as extensions of their entertainment arm’s marketing apparatus — or just as bad, seek to draft on primetime hits’ ratings largess with non-news tie-ins. The latest exercise in excess comes courtesy of NBC, which will bookend the April 15 finale of Thursday hit “The Apprentice” with installments of “Dateline NBC” on Wednesday and Friday that focus on the unscripted series. That’s right: Not just an hour-long NBC News special on Wednesday, but additional bonus coverage Friday. It’s a Trump-a-palooza! Still, as they say on late-night infomercials (funny how those sprang to mind), there’s more! The newsmagazine is also preparing hour-long specials to go with next month’s climactic episodes of “Friends” and “Frasier,” which, as we all know from NBC’s promos, will spell the end of laughter as we know it. Admittedly, the public doesn’t seem to mind such journalistic tomfoolery, at least based on ho-hum reaction to the antics of network morning shows. Beyond the usual assortment of stars, these platforms now parade out reality show contestants each week — from “The Bachelor,” “Survivor,” “The Apprentice” — as if they were real newsmakers, better-toned versions of Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld. Not that “The Apprentice” isn’t a big deal to lots of people, but let’s talk about perspective as well as allocation of time and resources. In the midst of an election year, and with the situation in Iraq far from pacified, is this really the best use of that much valuable primetime real estate? Newsmagazines have long argued that they approximate newspapers, freeing them to pursue a wide variety of stories. The investigative piece that opens the show — such as “Dateline’s” detailed investigation of racial profiling — provides the latitude to go interview George Clooney or Tom Hanks in the second half-hour and pay a few bills. Far from promoting the network, “Dateline” exec producer David Corvo insists he’s really just cashing in on programs to which viewers are demonstrably drawn. “It’s kind of backwards,” he says of the tie-in criticism. “There’s great audience interest in these things already, so I’m trying to capitalize on that.” It’s also undeniable that pop culture has become more attractive to print outlets, with major newsweeklies falling over each other to splash such properties across their covers. As Corvo puts it, “Everybody’s writing about ‘Friends,’ everybody’s writing about ‘Frasier,’ and you can’t turn on the TV without seeing Donald Trump.” Even so, “Dateline’s” flurry of cross-promotion comes not long after the news and entertainment divisions were placed under the combined aegis of a single exec, Jeff Zucker, mirroring the structure at CBS. In addition, news operations have been on the defensive for months, dogged by allegations of unsavory pursuits to acquire “get” interviews — from CBS’ courtship of Pvt. Jessica Lynch to this year’s bout of Michael Jackson mania. Faced with the reality that news is viewed as just another profit center, I’ve long maintained that it’s time to drop the charade and confess that news has variable standards when it comes to entertainment, taking that which looks shadowy and bringing it into the light. Once done, execs would no longer have to finesse payments and perks that we’re supposed to believe have nothing to do with securing access to interview subjects — in much the way collegiate athletics would be less tawdry if schools came clean and officially paid players stipends. Corvo concedes that sins of omission — as in “What are you leaving out?” to cover “The Apprentice” and its ilk — are a legitimate question; still, he stresses that NBC’s recent flurry of frivolity reflects an unusual juxtaposition of events, that entertainment coverage makes up a small portion of the newsmagazine’s output and that pop culture “is and always has been” part of that menu. An equally legitimate question is whether pandering with what Corvo dubs “more accessible” material really serves the public. Because any casual survey tallying the onslaught of “Bennifer,” Kobe Bryant and Laci Peterson coverage, combined with all the promotional nonsense, would seem to jettison us back to the summer of shark attacks and Gary Condit that preceded Sept. 11. Any way you slice it, priorities appear to be out of whack, though Corvo dredges up an old if understandable excuse — namely, that the public will decide how much is too much. “If they feel jobbed, they’re not going to come back,” he says, alluding to the credibility of network newscasts. “If they think you’re a disguised promotion, you’re going to pay a price for that.” There’s no arguing that TV viewers — especially those within the younger demos that advertisers seek — are complicit in their ability to identify Beyonce Knowles but not Condi Rice. Yet whether “Dateline” is bucking up “The Apprentice” or simply riding its coattails, the effect is the same — and by any measure represents an abdication of responsibility. So call it a “Dateline” special if you want, “Inside ‘The Apprentice,'” “Ronco’s Guide to TV Hits” or “America’s Funniest Bad-Hair Billionaire Videos.” Yet just as college sports stars that sign with agents relinquish their amateur status, news programs that wholly surrender to the blessings of synergy should forgo the right to be called “news.”
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