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Changing channels

IF NO NEWS IS GOOD NEWS, what sort of news is too much news?

Even with the bitter taste of the “Dateline NBC” flap still the flavor-of-the-year at NBC News, the three networks and Fox Broadcasting Co. are serving up 10 hours of news programming in prime time next fall, representing 15 % of their total time allotted for series programming.

At least two other news magazines — ABC’s “Moments of Crisis” and CBS’ “Street Stories” (the latter bumped to make room for “Eye to Eye With Connie Chung”) — will be held in reserve for first-quarter ’94. The news just keeps on coming.

A related development is the other big trend of the 1993-94 season: Many of the time periods to be occupied by news shows come at the expense of so-called reality series — shows like “Top Cops,””Code 3” and “FBI: The Untold Stories” that, despite solid ratings in many instances, were kept off the fall schedule to make room for news and entertainment programming.

Fox’s news show, for example, follows “Cops,” where “Code 3” had been sounding the alarm. ABC’s news magazine “Day One” moves over to bump “American Detective” and “FBI: The Untold Stories.”

NBC, which drew cheers from advertisers by saying it had exercised a “reality check” next fall, will offer “Unsolved Mysteries” and three news hours, including “I Witness Video,” which critics took to their bosom with the sort of passion they generally reserve for Geraldo Rivera.

THIS TREND AWAY FROM REALITY will doubtless be welcomed by many TV critics and those who follow the medium, who have often rightfully expressed disdain for reality shows, with their use of re-creations and other dubious devices to titillate the audience. What better way to cater to information-hungry viewers, after all, than with news? Any elation, however, should be mitigated by several factors, among them: A) the “Dateline” affair, which demonstrated the danger of too many news magazines vying for attention; B) the economic factors at work — a combination of the desire to amortize news overhead and the control network sales departments are now wielding over prime time; and C) the role of independent producers in supplying reality programs.

The logic of the networks is clear: Why put on reality series when the news division can provide programs the network can both own and use to help turn news into a profit center?

Like reality shows, news is relatively inexpensive. Unlike reality programming, news carries with it an authority and credibility that plays better with advertisers. And if next fall’s schedules demonstrate anything, it’s that network advertising departments — which have been exercising increased control over such decisions in recent years — are more firmly in command than ever.

Network officials took a beating last year for citing a lack of enthusiasm on Madison Avenue for viewers over 50, but that’s exactly what they’re saying this year about benching reality programs — many of which had a loyal following and generated solid viewing levels in some of the most difficult time periods on television.

NEWS SHOWS MIGHT DO AS WELL ratings-wise, of course, and if they don’t they still allow networks to promote evening newscasts as well as news in other dayparts. One has to wonder, however, whether the networks’ primary concerns are their balance sheets or their prime time market share, and if it’s the former, what sort of harm are they doing to themselves by forfeiting the latter?

A bottom-line mentality can be enticing in the short term, but in the process the three networks may watch their combined 60-plus share dwindle into the 50s without putting up much of a fight.

The proliferation of news programming also begs the question of how news divisions will respond to filling that breach, particularly with viewer palates accustomed to saltier reality fare. Already, shows like “Day One” have employed creepy music (witness its Jeffrey Dahmer profile) to augment certain pieces. That may seem like nitpicking, but it’s the sort of barrier that shouldn’t be crossed cavalierly, going from traditional documentaries to “The Thin Blue Line.”

When one takes into account that two of the year’s most critically vilified shows, “Dateline NBC” and “I Witness Video,” come from a network news division, the idea that news staffers will find themselves in future ethical quandaries hardly strains credibility. One need only look at local news to see the encroachment of techniques from tabloid syndicated fare into that realm, until the line between the two becomes indistinguishable.

AS FOR THE FINAL POINT, reality has provided independent producers a means of landing prime time berths without signing multimillion-dollar writing talent, swallowing $ 300,000-an-episode deficits or, ultimately, sacrificing their independence through a network or studio alliance.

Companies like Cosgrove-Meurer, Vin Di Bona Prods., Barbour-Langley and Grosso-Jacobson have remained players in the prime time game through their success in the reality genre. Now, it may be rare to see those sorts of names unless there’s an “in association with …” attached to them.

The proof, ultimately, will be in the programming. Maybe there’s enough grit and talent out there to yield 10 hours of quality news series a week. Maybe the “Dateline” situation will keep newspeople on their guard. Maybe magazines will pattern themselves after “60 Minutes,” not “A Current Affair.” Maybe peace and harmony will reign across the globe.

In any event, reality is dead. Long live news. Don’t be surprised, though, if the networks get another dose of reality not long into the ’93-94 season, right around the time the bill for their “reality check” starts to come due.

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