January 13, 1999
With the launch of "60 Minutes II", Media correspondent Terence Smith looks at the explosive growth of network news programs and asks the question, "What's next?"
TERENCE SMITH: Whether it's Jane Pauley offering tips about fatty mall food --
JANE PAULEY: There may be more to that mall food than you ever imagined.
TERENCE SMITH: Barbara Walters dishing up the latest consumer scams --
BARBARA WALTERS: Arnold Diaz found these and other horrifying examples of what can happen at cemeteries --
TERENCE SMITH: Or Mike Wallace interviewing "Dr. Death."
MIKE WALLACE: Kevorkian sees euthanasia as a fundamental American right.
ANNOUNCER: Around the world and into your home --
TERENCE SMITH: They are television news magazines -- the hottest programming growth sector among the big three broadcast networks. News magazines have moved into prime time, big time. They are now broadcast six nights out of seven and have exploded in just nine years from four hours of prime time programming per week to the currently scheduled 13. They are the most-watched television news shows anywhere, and together they are changing the nature of broadcast news.
DON HEWITT: The movies - going to one right wing meeting --
TERENCE SMITH: Don Hewitt, the executive producer of "60 Minutes," conceived and developed the news magazine genre 30 years ago.
|The growth of news magazines.|
DON HEWITT: The networks have gone out of the entertainment business, which they were once very serious about and did very well, into the news business that they're not serious about and they don't do very well.
TERENCE SMITH: "60 Minutes," pursuing its own long-established formula, has become the gold standard for television news magazines. Each week an ensemble of celebrity correspondents takes on a mix of investigative pieces, features and profiles, followed by the proverbial few minutes with Andy Rooney.
ANDY ROONEY: Earl Ogletree writes to say he enjoys my sometimes amusing monologue on "20/20."
TERENCE SMITH: The broadcast is predictable, successful and wildly profitable.
DON HEWITT: Wait a minute. There's no tail trim on here?
TERENCE SMITH: Hewitt goes into an edit room every week to craft the top of the broadcast. Hewitt estimates that "60 Minutes" has grossed between one-and-a-half and two billion dollars for CBS News over its three decades. It has won 65 Emmys and been among the top 10 highest rated shows -- news or entertainment - for 20 years. If Don Hewitt is the grandfather of the newsmagazine, --
NEIL SHAPIRO: So essentially we have two -
TERENCE SMITH: -- Neil Shapiro is the baby boomer who is redefining it. He is the executive producer of the NBC News juggernaut "Dateline."
NEIL SHAPIRO: I think "Dateline" has really pushed the genre, I think in a very good way. I think "Dateline" has said, you don't have to be predictable. I think we're the ones who can say, this story is worth an hour. Let's do it, or tonight you're going to get six different stories. Tonight you're going to get two different stories.
ANNOUNCER: This is "Dateline Monday" -
ANNOUNCER: "Dateline Tuesday" -
ANNOUNCER: "Dateline Wednesday" --
TERENCE SMITH: What "Dateline" does best is clone itself. After a shaky start in which it faked an explosion in the test crash of a General Motors pickup, "Dateline" prospered, mushrooming from its original one night a week schedule to the current five nights a week. With a staff of 300-plus, Dateline produces and airs a prodigious 800 stories a year. It offers a broad mix of breaking news, investigations, health and consumer reports and frothy features.
ANNOUNCER: The year's most-honored newsmagazine, "Dateline," will be right back.
TERENCE SMITH: Costs at this news factory are kept under control by amortization - many Dateline pieces are rebroadcast repeatedly on the network's cable channels. Victor Neufeld is the third prince of the news magazine realm. He's executive producer of the ABC flagship, "20/20." It's another runaway ratings success that has multiplied from its original Friday night slot to three nights a week and soon four.
TERENCE SMITH: Does the world need another news magazine?
VICTOR NEUFELD: I assume the audience will eventually tell us when there is a saturation level, but for me, I find that there is no limit to interesting stories that we can do.
MARC GUNTHER: It's a radically different world today for the networks than it was five or ten years ago.
TERENCE SMITH: Marc Gunther has been covering the broadcast world for 15 years. He's currently a senior writer at "Fortune Magazine."
|The economic imperative.|
MARC GUNTHER: What has changed is the opportunities for news have arisen as the economics of the rest of the television business have gone south. It's hard to find hit shows, the costs of Hollywood are expensive, news programming can be put on more economically and as a result the corporate owners of the networks are coming to the news division and saying 'give us more news'.
TERENCE SMITH: News magazines are economical, especially compared to the cost of entertainment programming. Typically, a news magazine can be produced for a few hundred thousand dollars per show -- versus more than a million dollars for an hour of drama or comedy.
MARC GUNTHER: "Dateline", because it's on so often, probably makes 100 million dollars a year. That's a very substantial number when you realize that the NBC network as a whole is making about 500 million dollars a year. So "Dateline" alone would account for 20 percent of NBC's profits.
TERENCE SMITH: That's the economic imperative that has prompted CBS to roll out its clone --
ANNOUNCER: Join Dan Rather, Bob Simon, Vickey Mabrey and Charlie Rose for 60 Minutes II.
TERENCE SMITH: -- on Wednesdays beginning tonight.
TERENCE SMITH: But are more news magazines necessarily better? Joan Konner, an award-winning television producer who is now publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, wonders whether the latest entries are entertaining news or newsy entertainment.
|News or entertainment?|
JOAN KONNER: I do think that there is a form of public interest journalism and there is a form of entertainment journalism, and more of the news magazines are at the entertainment end today than at the level of public interest journalism.
TERENCE SMITH: Joan Konner is also critical of the kind of newsmagazine story that seems simply designed to pull at the audience's heartstrings.
JOAN KONNER: They seem very focused on the personal story that really has no larger significance. It's an attempt to engage the emotions of the audience. It's about one bad father, one bad husband, one bad doctor, one terrible disease that affects a minor - you know -- portion of the audience, and I find it exploitive, manipulative, voyeuristic. I don't think that it's a form of journalism that serves the wider public interest.
TERENCE SMITH: Even the creator of the genre has expressed his doubts publicly.
DON HEWITT: Sad to say, but soap operas, that used to be the stuff of afternoon television, have moved upstairs and now run at night under the guise of "news magazines."
TERENCE SMITH: "Dateline's" Neil Shapiro offers this defense:
NEIL SHAPIRO: I'm realistic. I recognize that people have other things to watch besides us. We're up against some very strong programming, some excellent dramas. So the obligation is to try to find dramatic ways to tell important stories. I don't apologize for the drama. What I try to do is to use that as a way to tell you important information.
TERENCE SMITH: In an edit room, the CBS anchorman Dan Rather is working on a piece for "60 Minutes II." He says there is a dark side to the explosive growth among news magazines.
DAN RATHER: As the field gets more and more crowded, the temptation increases to dumb it down and sleaze it up in order to get an audience, and therein lies the danger.
TERENCE SMITH: Getting good ratings, he says, is not the primary goal of many news magazines; it's the only goal.
DAN RATHER: As you get more of these "news magazines" on the air, the temptation is ever greater to meet the competition. You see the competition on your night or another night and you say, that is a lousy piece, a cheap grab for the ratings, research-driven, and the other guy's answer is, 'Yeah, but we got a 17-share, and you got a 14-share.'
|Targeting an audience.|
TERENCE SMITH: Notice Dan Rather's phrase -- "research-driven." He's referring to one of the best-kept secrets of the news magazines - namely, that they are so focused on the ratings, under such pressure to get a "number," as they call it, that they use audience research to track the public's preferences -- not program-by-program, not piece-by-piece, but minute-by-minute.
TERENCE SMITH: So, you have in your files some of that research?
LARRY MAGILL: As a matter of fact, I have some old material. This dates back to about 1992 now, but this indicates the kind of graph that you'd come out with if you were to do minute-by-minute ratings of a newsmagazine program.
TERENCE SMITH: Larry Magill spent five years as the manager of news audience research for NBC.
LARRY MAGILL: This is one that you can clearly see from the sort of upward slope that it was a successful segment. Second segment here was not quite as successful -- it was flat -- as was the third segment. Producers will learn from seeing these kinds of graphs which segments are likely to be one that draws an audience in.
TERENCE SMITH: Today Magill is director of research for the Media Studies Center of the non-profit Freedom Forum.
TERENCE SMITH: So, what would an executive producer do if he or she found that a certain kind of story was very successful?
LARRY MAGILL: Well, basically, the successful stories are the ones that go in a file labeled, These are the stories we can do well, that audiences will tune into. We've got a way to guarantee you that you're going to reach audiences that you're trying to reach by doing this kind of programming.
TERENCE SMITH: "Dateline" executive producer Neal Shapiro acknowledges that he gets minute-by-minute research and says he has done so many broadcasts that he doesn't need it or use it to guide his programming. By now, he says, he can sense what the audience will and will not watch.
NEAL SHAPIRO: Breaking news on almost anything they will watch. Newsmakers -- people in the news that day-- they will watch. Things they will not watch: though I think I've tried pretty hard, Bosnia is a hard sell.
TERENCE SMITH: Victor Neufeld of "20/20" also tends to minimize the significance of audience research.
VICTOR NEUFELD: Minute-by-minute ratings are in the context of what else is on that night, what the competition is, what night of the week it is, a lot of things go into it. It's a tool and it's relatively minor in terms of everything else.
TERENCE SMITH: Media analyst Marc Gunther is skeptical when he hears producers deny that they rely on research.
MARC GUNTHER: There's no question that the editorial judgments about what we're going to put on "Dateline" or "60 Minutes" or "20/20" tonight, tomorrow night or the next night are shaped by demographics, ratings, research -- a deep knowledge that they have of who their audience is.
TERENCE SMITH: Former News Magazine producer Danny Schechter had firsthand experience with how some news magazines try to counter-program the competition.
DANNY SCHECHTER: What I began to see at "20/20" was that we were trying to compete against, at that time, dramatic shows like "Hill Street Blues". In order to do that we had to sort of target our stories at competing demographic groups. So, if " Hill Street Blues " was reaching an urban audience, we would try to reach a southern audience with a whole bunch of stories on country and western music stars. And this was aimed at particular communities to try and bring those viewers in.
|Getting the big interview.|
TERENCE SMITH: Probably the most intense competition among the news magazines is for the big, celebrated interview of the moment -- Michael J. Fox on his Parkinson's Disease, Ken Starr on his investigation of the president -- and, of course, Kathleen Willey on her alleged Oval Office encounters. None of the news magazines pays for interviews, but producers acknowledge that there are other ways to attract high-profile guests: block-booking on multiple broadcasts, a tie-in to a book deal or a made-for-television movie. Don Hewitt knows all the tricks.
DON HEWITT: I try not to get into that game. I do not deny for a moment that if there were no money involved -- I'd love to have Monica Lewinsky -- Monica Lewinsky is going to go in the history books like Marie Antoinette, for Christ sake. I mean, you know, come on. When somebody here was talking to the people who represent Monica Lewinsky, she was given very definite instructions: There's no book deal. There's no made-for-television movie deals. There is no deal anywhere lurking in the shadows here.
TERENCE SMITH: Barbara Walters landed the upcoming interview for ABC's "20/20."
VICTOR NEUFELD: If you're telling your story or you're being interviewed, individuals know they can trust Barbara to ask them the questions, elicit material information, and trust is the key word. Barbara is a very trustworthy interviewer.
TERENCE SMITH: Sympathy - is that another word?
VICTOR NEUFELD: Trust.
TERENCE SMITH: Don Hewitt may have missed out on the Monica interview, but he has another idea that will bring "60 Minutes'" attention and, likely, controversy.
DON HEWITT: I talked to Candice Bergen about being a contributor to "60 Minutes." Magazines have contributors all the time to contribute a story every once in a while, if we found the right story for her. She's super-intelligent. She was a photojournalist before she became an actress.
TERENCE SMITH: Wouldn't that be the ultimate marriage of Hollywood and the news business?
DON HEWITT: If I thought that we were marrying Hollywood and the news business, it would be the last thing in the world I would do.
TERENCE SMITH: But if she was willing tomorrow and you had the right story?
DON HEWITT: She is willing, and we're looking. We haven't found the right story yet, but I know her well enough to know that she brings something to the table more than "Murphy Brown."
TERENCE SMITH: Murphy Brown - Monica Lewinsky. They have one thing in common: the capacity to draw ratings. And that's what the news magazines have in common - not just the capacity, but the absolute mandate to produce ratings and build up the corporate bottom line.