UPFRONT 2: Programming Report – All the News That’s Fit to Air

Newsmagazines look to shave ratings points from prime-time hits

By T.L. Stanley

Bryant Gumbel, nattily dressed and looking as relaxed as a man can be after landing a $5-7 million deal, said recently that he has a trick up his sleeve for his newsmagazine, launching on CBS in the fall. ‘We’re going to be on just once a week,’ the former Today Show anchor joked, taking a gentle jab at his former employer, NBC, and rival network ABC. Both competitors have added another newsmagazine to their 1997-98 schedule; Dateline NBC expands to four nights from three, and ABC’s 20/20 adds an installment on Thursday.

Truth is, Gumbel’s quip applies to CBS, too. The Tiffany network is adding the veteran anchor’s still-untitled program to a lineup that already includes star-studded newsmagazines such as 48 Hours and 60 Minutes. Newsmagazines, long a staple of prime-time programming, have taken on a new importance on the fall schedule, occupying 10 hours a week on the three major networks’ regular lineups. Fox executives, who have said a newsmagazine is at the top of their priority list, are still in pursuit of the genre.

For next fall, newsmagazines, which can be produced at a fraction of the cost of an hour-long drama or sitcom, have been pitted against some of the most popular shows on TV. CBS’ 48 Hours and ABC’s new Thursday-night installment of 20/20 have the unenviable task of going head-to-head with NBC’s ER, the highest-rated program in prime time. On a typical Thursday, 48 Hours will pull in a 10 rating/14 share, less than half of ER’s 38 share, but still enough to come in second in the time period. Newsmagazines also give the networks a sense of flexibility in programming; the programs can be pulled or shifted into different time slots as needed.

Produced through the news divisions, the shows will continue to focus on investigative reports and news of the day. However, all of the programs are increasingly being influenced by the entertainment world. The newsmagazines, network execs say, must serve two masters. As evidence, Diane Sawyer’s recent two-part interview with mob informant Sammy ‘The Bull’ Gravano pulled in stellar ratings. Gravano was plugging his book, causing some media critics to argue that there was no real news value to the segments, but rather that ABC tapped into the public fascination with the Mafia in the same way The Godfather and other pure entertainment vehicles do. ABC argued that the mere presence of the man who brought down John Gotti was news. Then too, news anchors such as Sawyer and Barbara Walters have arguably become stars in their own right.

Though some advertisers grumbled that the networks are merely using the newsmagazines to plug weak spots in their schedules, NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield said the philosophy behind adding a fourth Dateline is simple. ‘The show has helped us in tough time periods, and now we want to put it in a good time period,’ he says. Dateline’s heavy presence did not escape one of the network’s stars. Midway through Littlefield’s upfront presentation to advertisers, Friends’ star Matthew Perry walked onto the stage and quipped: ‘I thought I should come out here before you put Dateline on the schedule again.’ The much sought-after Gumbel, though, said newsmagazines are a vital format for prime time.

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