January 13, 1999
Victor Neufeld, the executive producer of ABC's "20/20", recently spoke with Media correspondent Terence Smith about what makes a good news magazine. The following are extended excerpts from the interview.
TERENCE SMITH: Assuming another "60 Minutes II", and perhaps another "20/20", there are now news magazines virtually every night of the week. With this prospect in mind, I mean does the world need another news magazine?
VICTOR NEUFELD, Executive producer, ABC's 20/20: Does the world need another news magazine? I don't know. I would say that news magazine, as a genre, serve a very important service for the networks and the audience. I think we're a valuable part of the network's schedule and the live of a viewer and we serve a purpose in terms of information and human drama and telling real live stories and the audience seems to like us and we all think we do good work. So I am proud of what we do and I never, ever consider the strategy of the networks in terms of using news magazine anything except just a good hour of television programming.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you feel you're in the news business or the entertainment business or some combination of the two?
VICTOR NEUFELD: No. We're totally in the news business. Purely in the news business. There's nothing that…that kind of blends over into that or cuts into that, that is about entertainment. We do strong stories. And we do them the best we can.
TERENCE SMITH: But you do seek stories that are entertaining.
VICTOR NEUFELD: Well, absolutely. I mean the New York Times seeks stories that are entertaining.
TERENCE SMITH: In the sense that you seek stories that will build ratings….There is a need to get them. It's a reality, is it not?
VICTOR NEUFELD: I would say it's a reality based on Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings and ratings and the New York Times in readership and the Washington Post in readership and the Christian Science Monitor in readership, it's the same thing. You need to be successful and you're successful based on what kind of appeal you have for a wide readership or a wide audience. There is nothing that separates news magazines from the Wall Street Journal in terms of that. If the Wall Street Journal doesn't have readers, the Wall Street Journal doesn't exist.
TERENCE SMITH: Absolutely true. I don't know that the Wall Street Journal analyzes however story-by-story whether its readers like that story, respond to it and stay with the newspaper. They may not even have the means to do it. You do. And it's--
VICTOR NEUFELD: Right.
TERENCE SMITH: --it's a tool.
VICTOR NEUFELD: It is a tool. And the New York Times measures what reader buys the Thursday issue or the Tuesday issue based on the living section or the science section. Same thing.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, what makes a good news magazine?
VICTOR NEUFELD: A good news magazine is the same as a good newspaper or a magazine. You, you, you do stories that are strong, that are compelling. You raise provocative issues, you cover important issues that the country faces, education, environment, law and order, law and justice, health breakthroughs. You cover the gamut.
TERENCE SMITH: Is it news or is it a magazine?
VICTOR NEUFELD: It's a news magazine. And it's not a daily program. The difference between a daily program and a weekly program are now three times a week if you, is that the stories are done with more depth, they are selected a little more carefully. You have to ask the audience to spend an hour of their evening with you. And you have to give them something that's worth their time. So, the stories are selected at a very high level. They're selected so for their power, the power of information and their power of story telling.
TERENCE SMITH: You use the word, power. One criticism, not necessarily of your broadcast, but of news magazines is that very frequently the stories have an emotional impact but no wider significance than watching somebody cry on television. Fair criticism?
VICTOR NEUFELD: Well, is it a fair criticism? You know, a news magazines, print news magazines, print newspaper do stories that are human interest stories that are strong emotional stories about human beings and conflict with the world or with themselves. They have always been traditional stories for any media, print or television.
TERENCE SMITH: So, you're saying we do them but there's nothing new in that?
VICTOR NEUFELD: Nothing new at all. "60 Minutes" created the genre of doing strong, compelling human drama, you know…people facing obstacles, crises, conflicts, overcoming conflicts, individual, individual stories of great achievement.
|The Growth of News Magazines.|
TERENCE SMITH: You know, Don Hewitt's thesis often expressed is that there are so many news magazines because the entertainment industry is producing so few hits that, in effect, news magazines are filling holes…left by an impoverished entertainment industry. I wonder what you think of that thesis?
VICTOR NEUFELD: I think that I look at it slightly differently. I look at it as the modern reality of network television and the high cost of developing dramas, and the reality of how powerful news magazines can be if they're done well. So, I'm looking at 1998 as an, as an environment that's different than one year ago, 5 years ago, 10 years ago, even 6 months ago…. And what I see is that the networks have developed news magazines as a strong part of their lineup. And it is nothing to be, it's not filler, it's not something you put in instead of something, it competes on, on a, on an equal level with dramas…. And that's, once I used the word, inspiring. I mean to me it is inspiring because what you're, what's happening is that the viewer is opting for information rather than escapism. And that can only be good.
TERENCE SMITH: Information rather than escapism, the criticism is made that some of it is escapism in the sense that it is, that they are sometimes emotional stories with absolutely no wider significance than the personal story of this perhaps tragic situation.
VICTOR NEUFELD: Well, for example?
TERENCE SMITH: I don't have a particular piece in mind but that as a generic criticism it's made. If it's true, then it certainly wouldn't qualify as news.
VICTOR NEUFELD: Well, any stories that have, that has elements of human drama or individuals overcoming obstacles or crises is the meat and potatoes of any news outlet. It's been, it's been like that for centuries. There's nothing different or new and, you know, we do stories about people overcoming illness, life crises.
TERENCE SMITH: One thing I'm struck by very few foreign stories, why?
VICTOR NEUFELD: I don't know. Some of them are not that interesting, some of them are. You know, I look for them, haven't found that many interesting ones.
TERENCE SMITH: What would, what would you require in a foreign story to make it sufficiently interesting?
VICTOR NEUFELD: In a foreign story I would require the same as a domestic story. That is a subject that's powerful, that's strong, that appeals to the wide number of Americans that's our audience. Where there is a public service and that people will remember and, and be moved by and be affected by either the information or, or the story, itself.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, that sounds like the same and, yet, the, the fact is the stories are overwhelmingly domestic.
VICTOR NEUFELD: Right…
TERENCE SMITH: And, so, I'm still curious why?
VICTOR NEUFELD: I don't know why. I don't know why. You know, I, the goal of an executive producer of a news magazine is, oooh, many faceted, multi-faceted. You have to assign strong stories, you have to appeal to a wide audience and you have to be proud of the program and proud of what you're delivering to the audience. So, there are many subtle moments along the way in getting to that. And, so, why there are no foreign stories is one of the subtleties. I don't have an answer.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, I'm just wondering if that's one of those categories of stories that doesn't show up well in the ratings? That when you have be it minute-by-minutes or any other ratings, that your audiences don't respond to them as greatly as they do to domestic stories.
VICTOR NEUFELD: I haven't noticed that. In fact, they do as I remember when we've done them, I'm trying to remember the last time, but people react when there's strong material. People react when they remember and they're affected and they're, by the information or the story telling.
|The Future of the News.|
TERENCE SMITH: There is, I have heard speculation that as television news evolves, news magazines may actually replace the evening news. Is that something you can foresee?
VICTOR NEUFELD: No. I can't foresee that in the near future. I mean everything's changing so quickly….
TERENCE SMITH: I think another way to put it perhaps would be that given the day-long, 24-hour day flow of news through all-news channels, that the evening news will come to look more and more like the news magazines and approach stories more and more…in that fashion.
VICTOR NEUFELD: That's possible. And I've seen that. And that is, once again, you know, this is something we don't control. We're, the business changes, the environment changes, the modern world we are living in changes. And in terms of network, the, the reality is in network television and things are shifting very quickly. So, if an evening news broadcast does more magazine-type pieces and we do more topical pieces, then we get closer together. And maybe you meet somewhere in the middle down the road. But it's all about good story telling and it's all about the issues that people are concerned about….And it always has been.
TERENCE SMITH: The one thing that doesn't change, it seems to me, tell me if you agree, is ratings. Get them, you're a hero, don't get them, you're a goat. [Laugh.]
VICTOR NEUFELD: You see I've always gotten them. So, I don't know. I haven't been a goat yet, but there's time. But if you take a newspaper or a magazine and the owner says, no one's buying our newspaper or magazine, subscriptions are down, newsstand sales are down, we're in trouble. It's the same thing….So, where's the difference?
TERENCE SMITH: You mentioned one difference, you mentioned the fractionalized, fractionalizing of the audience which is certainly true for all of network--
VICTOR NEUFELD: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: --generally. So, while you're in a race for ratings, as anyone is, you're in a race for a smaller and smaller share of the total audience.
VICTOR NEUFELD: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: Cause for concern?
VICTOR NEUFELD: Cause for constant reevaluation, constant fine-tuning, constant, just considering what we do. And what's also inspiring to me is that the basic news magazine piece that was created by Don Hewitt as the mini-documentary, has basically remained the same in 20, 25, 30 years. You know, a 12-to-15-minute story that is, has a beginning, middle and end, that's told with a strong teller correspondent… while news magazines, print and newspapers have shifted and tried different features and gone to recipes and crossword puzzles and all that, the basic news magazine concept is pretty traditional.