NEW YORK — Television newsmagazines are facing a story they may not be able to handle: their loss of standing as a primetime fixture.
Schedule-friendly, time-flexible and cheap to produce, newsmags have been the networks’ recent genre of choice to plaster lineup holes left by failed entertainment programming, picking up where the pricier stopgap made-for-TV movie left off.
At the height of the newsmagazine boom two seasons ago, “60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt argued that the overabundance of primetime newshours was merely a byproduct of weak development on the part of the nets’ entertainment divisions.
“Behind every great newsmagazine is a failed sitcom,” Hewitt said.
When programmers on the West Coast started coming up with hits again, he predicted, the number of hours devoted to newsmags would start dropping again.
Indeed, Hewitt was right: The re-emergence of the drama this season has given network execs some reason to cheer.
Shows such as “The West Wing,” “Judging Amy” and “Law & Order: SVU” are all thriving in slots where newsmagazines would normally be plugging holes by now.
But even with the help of a lifeline, Hewitt never could have predicted the other genre that would start taking newsmags’ primetime slots.
” ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ has totally disrupted the basic thinking of the networks when it comes to programming,” said Richard Leibner, a TV agent with N.S. Bienstock for such luminaries as Dan Rather and Diane Sawyer.
Notably, gameshows like “Millionaire” play to the same strengths as newsmags: They, too, are cheap and flexible. And better than that, they’re hot, which is something that cannot be said of most primetime newsmags.
The bottom line facing the nets: The Nielsens are down for newsmags across the board. Of the 11 nights of newsmags, nine have seen a drop in viewers — some dramatically.
Season-to-date, CBS News’ “48 Hours” is down 13%, and the network’s jewel, “60 Minutes,” is flagging by 9%. ABC News’ Monday edition of “20/20” is down 28% from last year, while NBC’s Monday edition of “Dateline” is down 14%.
So, naturally, nets are now eyeing timeslots occupied by newsies as potential homes for gameshows.
ABC has pared down “20/20” from four nights per week down to three, and NBC has bumped the Monday edition of “Dateline” to make room for gamer “Twenty One.”
And that’s just the beginning.
“We always knew we were going to be flexible. We’ll fill another time period,” “Dateline” exec producer Neil Shapiro said. “We should — and will be — on at least three nights a week. Or five nights, depending on what the network needs from us.”
Susan Zirinsky, exec producer at “48 Hours,” direfully observes: “The terrain is kind of like the beaches at Normandy.”
In an ironic twist, “20/20 Downtown’s” ratings have markedly improved thanks to a bump by lead-in “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” The magazine, which had a good chance at being axed, is now likely to stick around.
Still, many primetime mags are getting lost in the shuffle. With at least one newsmag airing each night of the week, viewers tend to lose track of which one they are watching.
“Magazine programming may have expanded too much, which created a perception that there was a certain sameness to the product. Programmers need to make the product a little scarcer to increase demand for it,” one source said.
In a conference call to talk about the network’s performance during February sweeps, CBS president and CEO Leslie Moonves acknowledged theproblem facing the newsmag genre.”There is no question that newsmagazines ran through a period when there were five “20/20s” and five “Datelines” a week. Overall, it may have hurt the genre,” Moonves said.
But, some industry insiders wonder if the decline of the newsmag has more to do with a slow news cycle — a softening of the genre in a year with a dearth of Lewinskys, JFK Jrs. and Columbines.
As “Dateline’s” Shapiro, explains: “There haven’t been a great number of news stories that were good this year. I think that’s part of the reason that we’re down.”
As a result, newsmags have had to turn to stories that often flirt with sensationalism.
“Instead of the hard news stories you used to see, you now see pieces about liposuction. Stuff like that may work for a fast rating boost, but what does it do for the franchise?” asks one agent.
But “48 Hours’ ” Zirinsky defends liposuction.
“I think people want to know about liposuction if it’s unregulated and it’s killing people. It’s legitimate,” she said.
In the long-term, however, gameshows and low ratings may in fact spur newsmags to find more innovative formats.
As part of ABC News’ larger attempt to experiment with the traditional newsmag format, the division will debut “24/7,” a medical series that will tape at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center.
Last summer, ABC News took a similar chance with “Vanished,” which focused on missing people, and “Brave New World,” an avant-garde take on the newsmag format, which featured intellectual posturing about the meaning of reality.
“When you’re producing two or three or four shows a week, there’s a big challenge to keep it from turning into a factory,” said David Westin, president of ABC News, who is thought to be considering further scaling back ABC’s primetime newsmag efforts. Westin has said there may be just two editions of “20/20” per week before long.
Still, some dismiss the whole “trend” of newsmag retrenchment.
“Three years ago, I sat on a panel about the death of the drama. I’ve been asked to speak about the death of sitcoms. I think these things are cyclical,” Shapiro said.
One reason newsmags will always hold a place on network schedules is that they are more cost-efficient than scripted dramas or sitcoms.
While entertainment programs cost millions of dollars to produce, an episode for a newsmag costs roughly $500,000 an hour. Plus, as networks have acquired more news programming outlets, they can spread out the cost of the show. Portions of NBC’s “Dateline,” for instance, often air on MSNBC.”The mathematics of TV is such that these shows are owned by the network,” said Jim Griffin, an agent at William Morris who represents “Millionaire” host Regis Philbin, among others. “They’re not as expensive as a sitcom. That’s not going to change. The form won’t go away.”
Moreover, one of the drawbacks of newsmags, that they tend to skew away from the advertiser-friendly 18-49 demographic, is also a chink in the gameshow armor.
In other words, with the same innate strengths and weaknesses, it’s likely that the battle between newsmags and gameshows will be decided by ratings alone, with comparatively little subtext.
And not all newsmags have been sinking in the ratings.
One exception is “60 Minutes II,” the spinoff from the legendary original. Going into its second year, “60-2” averages a healthy 14 million viewers, up slightly from a year ago when it aired on the Eye web’s weaker Wednesday lineup.
Fager said “60 Minutes’ ” success is in its limited programming load and its storytelling sensibility. “The others are spread too thin,” he said.
(Michael Schneider and Josef Adalian in Hollywood contributed to this report.)