Programs provide stablity in tumultous primetime sked

The days when newsmagazines flew high in primetime and their star anchors scrambled for the big “get” and great ratings may be gone — but the format isn’t going the way of the Western.

Networks say they have settled on a new path forward for newsmags, with smaller budgets and thematic formats that are flexible the way primetime now requires. And by slotting them in more lightly watched weekend hours, the shows are usually very competitive in their timeslots.

“Newsmagazines hold a very special place for someone like me,” NBC scheduling chief Mitch Metcalf says, “because they are one of the most reliable forms of programming. We ask a lot of them, we put them into very tough time periods often, and they provide a very good rating for us in those time periods.

CBS’ “60 Minutes,” still the Cadillac of newsmags, doesn’t make a big impression in the adults 18-49 audience, but it’s often the most-watched nonsports program on Sunday. “Dateline” came to NBC’s rescue this past spring (following the departure of “The Jay Leno Show”) and won its 10 p.m. Friday timeslot in the second quarter, and ABC’s “20/20″ and CBS’ “48 Hours Mystery” often win their 10 p.m. timeslots on Friday and Saturday, respectively.

“It’s tough, I grant you, if you compare (the ratings of) ‘Dateline’ today to ‘Dateline’ 10-15 years ago,” Metcalf adds. “It looks much smaller; everything has settled down. I think the most relevant comparison is (to other shows) today.”

In late July, ABC broadcast five newsmagazine hours in a single week, with “20/20″ and “Prime-time: What Would You Do” registering timeslot victories. On Aug. 19, ABC launched a 10 p.m. spinoff of “Nightline,” called “Nightlineprime,” for an initial four-week run.

“I’m so excited by the number of hours ABC has asked of us,” ABC exec producer of newsmagazines David Sloan says. “A lot of people count the newsmagazines out, a lot of press do, in terms of where their future lies. … I think we’re doing well, and that’s why we’re given all these opportunities across the schedule.”

A decade ago, networks were cloning the newsmags at an almost shameless rate, with viewers of “20/20″ and “Dateline” seeing double, triple or quadruple in a given week. Even “60 Minutes” gave in to pressure and created “60 Minutes II.”

But with the well-chronicled rise of unscripted entertainment programming, spawned by “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and “Survivor,” newsmags went into a scheduling retreat. The news cycle has become so shortened that most newsmags seldom capture a must-see interview in the way they used to, and as a result ratings have declined.

CBS’ “48 Hours” evolved into “48 Hours Mystery” in 2004, signalling a shift from the classic “60 Minutes” multi-story format into editions that stretch a single story across an entire hour — or even two. Similarly, NBC’s “Dateline” has bagged solid ratings for its two-hour crime/courtroom tales, with numbers usually growing with each half-hour.

“We go deeper rather than broader,” NBC News exec producer David Corvo says. “I heard Marcia Gay Harden on ‘Morning Joe’ talk about how much she missed movies of the week. In a funny way, we’re filling in with nonfiction movies of the week.”

ABC has reinvented the genre in nontraditional ways. “Boston Med” offers documentary storytelling without a host or commentator. “Primetime: What Would You Do?” tells its stories not through conventional reporting, but by setting up ethical dilemmas that play out “Candid Camera” style.

“We’re shooting one right now about Hispanic people being stopped in the street in an Arizona immigration scenario,” Sloan says. “We’ve also done date-rape scenarios (and) drunk pilots, which are ripped from the headlines. I think the program has its roots in news. It’s done from the prism of almost a human laboratory to see how people react.

“(ABC News president) David Westin encourages us to break new ground,” Sloan adds. “I think the ABC network has been very, very open to new ideas, new ways of telling stories.”

NBC’s Corvo points out that technological advances have been a boon to newsmags, allowing them to weather financial pressures from above while doing more interesting work out in the field. A recent “Dateline” hour on migrant farmworkers and their children — part of the newsmag’s “America Now” series — involved 11 months (on and off) alongside the workers. In the past, that would have required a five-person team, Corvo says, but using small HD cameras that produce “spectacular looking” footage, the project was largely shot with a crew of one.

In a tough economy for everyone, those tech triumphs of efficiency have helped make newsmagazines more appealing financially to networks. They’ve been able to make savings without cutting the heart out of the news operation or doing things completely on the cheap.

“The new technology is more evident in the hard news-gathering operation that we have here,” CBS News president Sean McManus says. “I think ’48’ and ’60’ are produced more efficiently. Having said that, we haven’t considered cutting the budget in such a way that it would be noticeable onscreen. When two shows are performing as well as they do, I don’t think there’s any desire to.”

Survival has meant going more People than prestige. In the past month, “20/20″ has had stories on a shut-in who lost 400 pounds, a woman leaving her husband for another woman and an entire hour dedicated to behind-the-scenes stories related to ABC reality competish series “The Bachelor.”

“We don’t shy away from celebrity journalism,” Sloan says. “I think it’s a legitimate area of reporting.

“With the fact that ‘The Bachelor’ had become a phenomenon, independent of what network it’s on, it became a legitimate subject for a newsmagazine. So many magazine covers in the print world had the couple from ‘The Bachelor’ on their covers. … We like to take on things that our viewers are interested in.”

The holdout to the changes in the newsmag business is “60 Minutes” — largely because CBS News sees little reason to stray from a format largely unchanged from the way it was 40-plus years ago.

“We went through a potentially difficult period four years ago when we had the untimely, tragic death of Ed Bradley and the retirement of Mike Wallace,” McManus says. “A lot of magazine shows might have suffered because of that. … However, the show has evolved into keeping all its traditional values and its very essence while also being able to migrate into the next generation of ’60 Minutes’ (correspondents).”

McManus says the show has never considered the temptation of going tabloid. “I made the point that a couple seasons ago, some of its highest rated shows were (about) credit default swaps and collateral debt obligations,” he notes.

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