Once a staple of network TV, the multi-segment, hourlong newsmagazine has become something of an endangered species.
“60 Minutes” is still going strong, but CBS topper Leslie Moonves has called the form it popularized “the new Western,” as the networks cut back such hours and shows like “Dateline” and “20/20” transform into non-fiction infotainment.
But the newsmagazine is getting a second life on financial cabler CNBC, where former “60 Minutes” producer Josh Howard leads the net’s longform unit.
The newsmag is not the only one getting a second life. Howard was one of three execs asked to leave CBS in 2005 in the wake of Dan Rather’s infamous piece on President Bush’s military service for “60 Minutes II.”
Now he leads a small diaspora of former “60 Minutes” journalists who produce both hourlong and two-hourlong primetime docs for CNBC as well as the net’s new signature business newsmag, “Business Nation.”
And if “Business Nation” looks and feels a little like “60 Minutes,” it’s no accident.
“I would like to think everything we do, ’60 Minutes’ would do,” Howard says, with the caveat that the venerable “60 Minutes” can’t do a steady diet of business stories.
Howard’s unit produces both “Business Nation” and fills the CNBC pipeline with documentaries that get heavy promotion and multiple airings on the network, such as “Big Mac: Inside the McDonald’s Empire” and “Against the Tide: The Battle for New Orleans.”
Another doc, “American Airlines: A Day in the Life” was just released on DVD.
Both “Business Nation” and the docs are central to the biz cabler’s attempt to build a relevant primetime before News Corp.’s Fox Business Network brings competition when it launches in October.
“Primetime has been an area which is hit or miss for us,” says network senior VP Jonathan Wald, who oversees business news. The net is trying to build Jim Cramer’s “Mad Money” into a tentpole at 6 p.m. and has debuted two shows, “On the Money” at 7 and “Fast Money” at 8, but the net’s highest-rated hours in primetime are still repeats of “Deal or No Deal.”
While ratings for “Deal” are seductive, CNBC is hoping to wean itself off the show with a mix of business programming it can promote during the trading day, when CNBC audience levels peak.
But newsmagazines and docs are expensive to produce, meaning the net has limited “Business Nation” to one new episode a month and docs roughly on a quarterly basis. Boosting the frequency of “Business Nation” would be an expensive proposition, but the network is studying it.
“Longform is always more expensive, but when you air them multiple times, that defrays the costs,” Wald says.
Aside from providing some nonfiction punch for CNBC, the longform unit has revitalized Howard’s career in TV journalism, which was put into question after “Memogate” landed his photo on the front page of the New York Post.Howard had spent 23 years at the Eye, many of them as “60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt’s protege until he was promoted to exec producer of “60 Minutes II” during the summer of 2005.
Soon after he started the job, he was presented with the documents and a very eager anchor and producer who felt they had the story nailed and that they might get scooped. The report aired two weeks later in a time slot designated for a late-summer rerun. Howard was in charge, and thus ultimately responsible.
He was one of three asked to resign in the aftermath; Rather’s producer Mary Mapes was fired.
“It was 23 great years and then two really bad weeks,” as he puts it.
But his legacy at CBS was helped somewhat by an email trail that showed he tried to hold the story before it was rushed onto the air, and that he argued for full disclosure of the missteps in the aftermath.
Now, in addition to half-dozen former “60” Minutes producers either working or freelancing for Howard, the doc unit has become a landing pad for disillusioned producers with “Dateline,” “20/20” and “Primetime” credits on their resumes.
The latest edition of “Business Nation” took an expansive view of business news, including a piece playing off the Crandall Canyon mine disaster, “Life and Death in Coal Country,” and a piece by NBC News correspondent Bob Faw, “Cash Crop,” on farm subsidies.
The next crop of documentaries will include a look back at the stock market crash of 20 years ago, “October ’87: Crash and Comeback,” and a look inside the business of a professional baseball franchise, a project he expects to complete early next year.
To make the documentaries pay, CNBC wrings an enormous number of airings out of both the newsmagazine and the docs. The network’s first, “The Age of Wal-Mart,” produced before Howard arrived, has aired more than 60 times since it debuted in 2005.
But when CNBC airs an original doc, it typically draws its biggest aud of the evening. When the McDonald’s doc premed in August, 514,000 viewers tuned in at 9 p.m. and an additional 307,000 joined at midnight.
It has aired 10 more times since gathering 5 million viewers in the process. Elements of the doc have also appeared on “Today,” “Nightly News” and MSNBC.
“Those numbers reassure us,” Howard says. “It tells us there is an audience for well-produced docs, particularly among the more affluent, highly educated viewers which are our core.”
“Business Nation” typically gets 10-12 airings per month, and accumulates 2-3 million viewers.
It’s a far cry from “60 Minutes,” which still attracts 10 million viewers or more on any Sunday night.
More than two years ago, Howard knew his tenure at “60 Minutes II” might not last almost as soon as he got the job as exec producer. Moonves told him to enjoy the gig while it lasted; CBS’ primetime was No. 1, and “we don’t need newsmagazines anymore.”
Three years later, Howard says, “That’s a big advantage to being at CNBC; none of the broadcast networks are doing the kinds of one- and two-hour docs that I’m getting to do here.”