Another Jackson trial, a visit from “Desperate” housewife Teri Hatcher and a truly gory report on faith healer John of God were among the offerings on ABC’s “Primetime Live” this season — under normal circumstances, a lineup that could be expected to bring big ratings.
But “Primetime,” once a top 10 hit, is down a whopping 22% from its so-so performance last year, despite a much-hyped revamp and the rising fortunes of the Alphabet web. Friday-night staple “20/20,” in its first season sans Barbara Walters, is also down double digits.
Newsmag ratings rise and fall all the time, but this time might be different. Nobody at ABC wants to admit it, but industry insiders say it’s no longer inconceivable that the net could start its season this fall without “Primetime” or “20/20.”
Meanwhile, over at CBS, supremo Leslie Moonves has declined to guarantee “60 Minutes Wednesday” will be renewed for another year. And “Dateline NBC” is down to just two broadcasts a week, a far cry from a few years ago when it ran almost every night of the week.
After years of occupying sacred ground on network schedules, primetime newsmags have suddenly morphed into mere mortals.
The genre — a longtime staple of the networks’ primetime — is withering under the onslaught of reality shows, the return of strong dramas to primetime and a news environment increasingly dominated by 24-hour cable.
The shows have survived multiple up-and-down cycles due to their ability to morph to suit the times and serve as hole fillers. They typically cost half what a scripted drama requires, and in timeslots where competitors were simply too strong, they could generate decent ratings.
Increasingly, however, nets are looking to reality shows — often just as cheap as newsmags — to serve in the role of utility player.
“Years ago people felt they were getting the raw, emotional stories (on newsmags), but now the audience that watches a lot of reality TV feels they are getting those stories,” one network insider says. “We know it’s scripted reality, or the manipulation of reality, but the audience feels sated.”
Over at ABC, the departure of Walters, as well as Diane Sawyer’s increasing focus on “Good Morning America,” have made the net’s flagship franchises even more vulnerable.
No matter how many times in past years ABC Entertainment execs have wanted to move or cancel one of the newsmags, their efforts have been trumped by strong lobbying by ABC News. Walters in particular carried superstar status, not to mention a huge paycheck that made messing with “20/20” tough.
But now, Walters is off “20/20” and Sawyer has cut back her “Primetime” workload. And with more hits than at any time in the past five years, Alphabet execs may be looking for real estate to try out new skeins come May, when the fall sked is set.
“If they get a couple good dramas or comedies in development, (ABC’s entertainment execs) might feel like they can go after the newsmags,” predicts one rival network exec.
ABC News says its two shows are at no risk of cancellation.
“I’m not expecting to have to scale back,” says Phyllis McGrady, ABC News senior veep in charge of both shows and “Good Morning America.” “I feel ‘Primetime’ and ’20/20′ are both going to be on the schedule.”
But executives at CBS aren’t so sanguine. “I have never known that we have a spot on the fall schedule,” says Susan Zirinsky, executive producer of “48 Hours Mystery.” “I know it’s my job to fight and make the case for them to put us on the air.”
Another Eye newsmag, “60 Minutes Wednesday,” may be in even graver danger. Skein, which aired the flawed report on President Bush’s military service that led to the departure of executive producer Josh Howard and his deputy Mary Murphy, was put on notice by Moonves last month when the exec said the show would have to “earn its place in the lineup.”
Despite their woes, newsmags have proven to be a durable genre.
Three newsmags — “60 Minutes,” “20/20,” and “48 Hours”– are among the longest-running shows in primetime. The “Dateline” franchise is second in longevity only to the “Law & Order” franchise on NBC.
And producers know how to reinvent themselves.
Zirinsky repositioned “48” to take on the crime procedurals by changing the title from “Investigates” to “Mystery” to reflect its focus on true crime and then campaigned with Moonves for the 10 p.m. slot Saturday opposite three hours of “Law & Order” reruns.
There, she says, “48” is often the Eye’s highest-rated offering Saturday night, but she cautions, “It’s going to take a year to find an audience.”
The biggest challenge for ABC’s newsmags is brutal competition.
“Primetime” competes on Thursday night with CBS’ hit crime procedural “Without a Trace” and NBC’s juggernaut “ER.” It didn’t help that, until recently, the newsmag’s lead-in was the ultra low-rated “Life as We Know It.” (Ratings have perked up since ABC put “Extreme Makeover” back in the 9 p.m. timeslot).
“20/20” fares a bit better on Friday — it builds off its lead-in “Less Than Perfect” and sometimes wins its timeslot. But ABC execs have to be disappointed about the mag’s so-so perf opposite what until recently has been little real competition.
Some news insiders says it’s just a matter of time before nets overdo it on procedural crime dramas and out-there reality shows. When the happens, these execs predict newsmagazines will step in as the cheap, reliable ratings-generators they’ve been in the past.
That doesn’t mean producers will go quietly.
“Nobody gave us an unlimited access pass to primetime,” newsmag producer Zirinsky says. “We have to fight for our place and reinvent ourselves.”