January 13, 1999
Neal Shapiro, the executive producer of NBC's "Dateline", has seen his program grow from one night a week to five. He recently spoke with Media correspondent Terence Smith about the growth of news magazines and its impact on the news industry. The following are extended excerpts from the interview.
TERENCE SMITH: This broadcast literally has grown like Topsy, a mushroom after the rain. Now how many nights a week?
NEAL SHAPIRO: Five nights a week, somewhere around the area of 800 stories a year.
TERENCE SMITH: It's an extraordinary number, extraordinary production, extraordinary expansion of a genre, the news magazine, that's taken place really in just a few years. What explains it?
NEAL SHAPIRO: I think a lot of things explain it. I think there is--first, I think there's an interest in news and information because if there weren't, we wouldn't be able to expand. And the fact is every time "Dateline" goes into a new time period, the audience finds it, and responds, and in almost every time period we end up winning the time period after not too long. I think that's one reason. I think there's certainly an economic imperative for it--I think in the same ways that newspapers have added sections. The reason The Washington Post added a "Style" section and really changed the way newspapers were in this country was because they said, "I bet we can get more readers to read it," and the reason the New York Times added a "Living" section and the reason a lot of other newspapers have expanded is they've said, Can we find a way to tell more different kinds of stories and will the audience respond to it?
TERENCE SMITH: What's the economic imperative, more specifically of news magazines?
NEAL SHAPIRO: I think, in the news magazine business, it's been that the costs of doing other entertainment shows has gone up. Network news magazines are less expensive, and they still deliver an audience.
TERENCE SMITH: And so, in fact, the case, in the history of "Dateline," is that repeatedly you were asked to plug holes in the entertainment schedule, where NBC was not doing well.
NEAL SHAPIRO: I think that's exactly right, and I see nothing wrong with it. In fact, I'm happy to be a member to contribute to the NBC team, as long as we can do quality journalism, which I think we do.
TERENCE SMITH: Eight hundred pieces a year. You must have a story board around this office somewhere that is as big as an Allied Van Line.
NEAL SHAPIRO: Well, we have a lot of stories in the works, but I have a great staff, and I think in 20 or 30 years people are going to look back and say a whole generation of great broadcast journalists worked at "Dateline." And, unlike a single news magazine, I think the senior producers here have a tremendous amount of authority and challenges to work on the stories that they do, but they're a great bunch of people.
TERENCE SMITH: Does the sheer volume of stories that you do inevitably dilute the time, and effort, and reporting, and investigation that you can put into any one piece?
NEAL SHAPIRO: No, it doesn't. I hear that criticism a lot. I hear people say, "You do so many stories, they can't be any good because you're doing so many of them." And when you look at the show you realize "Dateline" does a whole range of different stories….
The fact is, despite the fact that we do so many stories, we found a way to devote entire hours to serious, important topics that my colleagues really don't cover in other news magazines. I'm talking about corporate downsizing, handicapped disability, migrant farm workers, corporate welfare. These are stories that are ignored by other news magazines. We found a way to make hours out of them. At the same time, we're the only--At the same time, I think we're the only news magazine which has found a way to move breaking news into prime time. I think there's nothing wrong with that. I think it's terrific.
There used to be a time when breaking news would be covered in the morning news, then it would be covered on the network evening news, and then it would be covered again on your local news, and then maybe again on "Nightline." And what we have said is, "Why can't we do the same things that we do in all of those other news venues and do them in a prime time magazine?"
TERENCE SMITH: How would you describe the major news magazines? Characterize them and distinguish one from another; "60 Minutes," "20/20," "Dateline."
NEAL SHAPIRO: I think "60 Minutes" deserves enormous credit for really starting the genre. I think "60 Minutes'" strength is that they're predictable. I think that they do, reporters you've known for a long time, with three stories that are about 13 minutes each and Andy Rooney, I think it's a strong, predictable news magazine, and I think they're proud of that.
TERENCE SMITH: "20/20"?
NEAL SHAPIRO: I think "20/20" deserves a lot of credit for broadening some of what news magazines did. I think consumer reporting, and especially what "20/20" calls "coping" stories, I think they were the real--the first news magazine that really took those issues and said, "We can make those work. They're important. They're not routinely covered, but there's some importance to it," and I think they deserve a lot of credit for that….
And I think Barbara Walter's interviews, I think certainly Barbara gets a large number of interviews that I know I would like to get, and they deserve a lot of credit for that.
TERENCE SMITH: And "Dateline"?
NEAL SHAPIRO: I think "Dateline" has really, I think in the same way that every news magazine comes along and contributes something, 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. If it's an important news story, you're news people, do it," and we deserve credit for moving news into a prime time arena, and I think we're the least predictable. I think we're the ones that can say, "This story is worth an hour. Let's do it" or "Tonight you're going to get an hour. Tonight you're going to get six different stories. Tonight you're going the get two different stories." I think we're the most, on the news magazine, I think we're the most aggressive news magazine, and I think we probably pay more attention to what I would call "back-of-the-book" features than anybody else.
TERENCE SMITH: You are--you, "Dateline,"-- are frequently criticized for being the softest of the news magazines. How do you plead?
NEAL SHAPIRO: I think it's completely not true. I think there are only--I think there are very few people who watch all five hours of "Dateline." I do, my sister does, my parents do, my wife does, and that may be it. I think a lot of people who say that judge us by the promos they see on the air. If you actually watch the show, we do more breaking news than anyone else, we do more investigative reporting than anybody else, and there's a reason we've earned more awards than anybody else, because I think we do more important journalism than anybody else. That's, in part, because we're on five times a week. But the fact is most of our stories are breaking news, investigative stories, news makers, the kind of stories everybody else does. It is easy to pick on two or three stories and say, "Ah, this is emblematic of what `Dateline' does." But in point of fact, it's just not true.
TERENCE SMITH: A more flattering way of couching that criticism, which I've also heard, is that you, personally, and "Dateline" institutionally, are unapologetic and unashamed of putting on light, entertaining pieces that would reach a broad middle audience.
NEAL SHAPIRO: Well, I think there's a difference between saying you will sometimes put on light, entertaining pieces, and you have a light and entertaining show. Let's look at Time or Newsweek or U.S. News. Would you say those are light news magazines? No. I think you'd say, in part of their magazine, they do some things which are light and entertaining, what I call back-of-the-book features…. I think there's nothing wrong with spending 95 percent of your news magazine on serious and important topics and 3 percent on how they did the effects in a big and important movie that came out that week.
|Impact of News Magazines.|
TERENCE SMITH: This tremendous expansion of news magazines at this and at other networks has, in fact, devoted more and more of the assets of those news divisions to the production of news magazines, inevitably drawing at least some of the attention and centrality away from the evening news broadcasts. What's the impact, in your view and from your perspective, on television journalism?
NEAL SHAPIRO: Well, I think it depends at each network how the news magazine fits in and how it fits strategically in a network. I think there could be a problem if it turns out that important stories are never covered because the only thing that counts is a news magazine and what you think works in a news magazine. I think it's a little different at NBC. I think because we so much believe in covering news stories and putting news on the air, no one ever says to me, "Why are you putting resources into news?" So whenever there's a news story, it's not just, "How are we going to cover this for today? How are we going to cover this for nightly?" it's also, "What's `Dateline' going to want?" So I think it's a positive thing at NBC because it really means that at some networks the feeling might be, "Our news magazine doesn't really do breaking news. Therefore, less interested."
At our place, it's quite the opposite. Not only that, the notion is, after "Dateline" does it, what is the cable side going to want? So I think NBC is a little different place. Everybody here is into news. Everybody works together. We're delighted to kind of share resources. There aren't walls up here at NBC. So oftentimes I'll do stories and then Jeff Zucker will run it on the "Today Show" that morning or take a little bit more the next day. Sometimes we do pieces for nightly. The fact that Katie and Tom are a part of the "Dateline" family and do stories for us, means I think that there are less walls up, and oftentimes we can all put our resources together to say what we're covering now, as we sit here today, "How are we going to cover impeachment"?
TERENCE SMITH: With all due respect, Andy Heyward [CBS News President] would insist that it's exact the same at CBS, and I think you might get a similar answer at ABC. The facts are that network news divisions--let's use the plural here--are closing bureaus around the world, closing bureaus in this country, letting go people and putting on hiring freezes and generally doing everything they can to control the costs of their kind of baseline news operations while, at the same time, expanding into the news magazine area. I mean, that has an impact, does it not? …
NEAL SHAPIRO: All I can speak to is NBC News. That's the place I work with now. Nobody likes budget cuts. Nobody likes to do less than they want to do. At the same time, I do think that so what it forces us to do is to think smarter, to think better, but I don't think--at least in my experience--that I've ever been told not to cover a story, and since my whole thought at "Dateline" is let's get into breaking news. It's what we do better than the other guys. I'm interested in that. No one has ever said, Don't spend money on this. No one ever said, Don't do it. No one has ever said, That's too far to go for a story, ever.
TERENCE SMITH: The people who are concerned about this and about this trend in development will argue the following: That the news magazines have become so much the focus of effort, asset, and attention at the news divisions that they are changing all of the other broadcasts around them; that the evening news broadcasts are now more news "magaziney" in style…and, therefore, they are having a broader effect, an impact on television journalism as a profession than might be realized by people.
NEAL SHAPIRO: I think there's no doubt that things are changing. The question is how are they changing and what's the impact of that? Now, if the impact is that sometimes we do longer stories on the evening news than we used to, and sometimes we tell stories through characters first to get to a larger issue, as magazines do, and perhaps our stories are more memorable or more powerful, that's not bad.
Now, what's bad is if you don't cover stories. What's bad is if you say you're not going to cover stories any more because they are too expensive, because we can't figure out a way to cover them, I just don't think that's the case, and I think, especially at NBC, if you look at the "Brian Williams Show," that may well be the news of tomorrow. It's an hour long. They cover everything. They go wherever they want to--
TERENCE SMITH: And it's on cable.
NEAL SHAPIRO: It's on cable.
TERENCE SMITH: A different world…People forecast that the trend is so strong in one direction that in due course the evening news broadcasts, as we know them, as essentially headline services, although they don't like to be called that, will disappear and be replaced by news magazine-like broadcasts probably in that same time slot. Do you expect that?
NEAL SHAPIRO: I'm not quite sure. I don't really have a crystal ball in the 6:30 to 7:00 time period, but I don't think that's true. My guess is there's always going to be a place for an evening newscast, when you can come home, after a hard day at work and still say, "I've got 23 minutes. I've got 30 minutes. Tell me what I need to know." The fact is that the world does change, and you can't just say dismissively, "Oh, there's cable." The fact is more and more people can find news in other places before they watch the news at 6:30.
Now--local news used to be half an hour. Local news is now two-and-a-half hours in some places, and some of the same material that was so rare to see on the evening news is now made available to your local station. So the challenge may be to the evening news, tell me something that feels different, more informative, more useful to my life than what I just saw at 6:00 to 6:30. I understand there are a lot of people who loved the way the news was for 20 years from 6:30 to 7:00. They loved the world when the networks got all of the news first, when locals did local news, network did network news, and that was it. But like it or not, the information revolution has happened. More news and information is available, so all of us are going to have to figure out ways where we can add something to people's knowledge, and I think it's smart for everybody to say, The world is changing. What can we do differently? What can we take advantage of? What can we do better?
|The Future of the Genre.|
TERENCE SMITH: Where does it go from here, news magazines, not just this one, but the genre?
NEAL SHAPIRO: I think the best answer is I don't know. When I came to NBC four years ago, I was perfectly happy to do one show a week, and I thought that's what I would be doing. If you told me then you'd be doing five shows a week, I'd say, "You're crazy." Now that we're doing five shows a week, I think we all like doing it. I think we're proud of what we do, and I think, most importantly, we think there's a great opportunity here. To me, every news magazine that has come along has been able to add something. It's been able to add something to the genre, to push the envelope a little bit, and help people to tell stories better, to tell stories that will touch people, and I think at "Dateline" we've done some of that. I'm proud of the fact we put more news into prime time. I'm proud of the fact they're doing important hours. But I think we keep pushing ourselves to say what's the next thing we can do.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you keep pushing yourself into also somewhat theatrical techniques; the camera following the car, going down the path at night, that sort of thing? I mean, where do you draw the line in what comes very close to recreation?
NEAL SHAPIRO: To me, I don't think it's that complicated. I think there's nothing wrong with telling--I think what you don't want to do is confuse your audience, and I think the audience is pretty smart. I think they understand that if they see pictures that are layered one on top of another with fragmentary images of an event that happened years ago where you couldn't possibly get pictures, that that clearly isn't what you're doing. You're just trying to tell them something. At the same time, we don't put hands in the frame. We don't hire actors. We don't do anything like that because that does have the potential to confuse the audience.
TERENCE SMITH: But you use the camera to show motion and to follow the course of a story, even when you're not--that camera isn't pictured on, isn't focused on the individual who walked down that dark path at night.
NEAL SHAPIRO: No, but I think we pretty much--we try to write it to say, "He walked down this path. He took a left down this road," and if there's any way in which we think it's confusing, we don't do it. As a matter of fact, when we've done stories like that, if you listen, we say, we don't just taking any driving shot. It's got to be a driving shot down that highway. And I think pretty much a highway at night, the same highway, looks kind of the same whether you shot it in June or July.
TERENCE SMITH: And the future? I didn't get much out of your crystal ball there. The context of the question is this: It's changed so much in the last five years, do you have any notions of where you think it'll go in the next five years?
NEAL SHAPIRO: You know, I don't know how many news magazines there will be in the next five years.
TERENCE SMITH: Some may shake out?
NEAL SHAPIRO: Some may shake out, and if CBS or ABC is forced to cancel a news magazine, so be it. I do think that I'm pretty optimistic about where--I think I'm pretty optimistic about where news magazines itself are going. Last Friday we devoted an entire hour to migrant workers, and we won the time period. So I'd say we told a pretty compelling story about a pretty important topic that I think people would have said to you three years ago, "You can't do this. People won't watch it, and if you do it, you won't do well in the ratings because the audience won't find it accessible."
I think we found a way to tell an important story and tell it well. I think we found ways about doing things better, and I think we'll keep pushing ourselves. I'm delighted that there's more news in prime time now than there was five years ago. I think that five years from now there might be more. I'm delighted that we keep trying to find ways to tell stories about things like corporate downsizing. I mean, could there be a drier topic than that? And, yet, making an important hour that touched people and make them think. I'm hoping in the next five years we'll find more ways to do that.
TERENCE SMITH: In the larger context of news the public needs to know, what is the obligation of the news magazine to deliver it, particularly news that may not be a ratings winner?
NEAL SHAPIRO: I think more than any other news magazine on television, "Dateline" has tried to find ways to cover important stories. We've tried to say to ourselves it's important that they find some way to make people interested, and I think we've covered the impeachment process much more than any other news magazine, even though the ratings would tell you people aren't interested, but we've done because we've said, "You know what, the history of the republic is at stake. We've got to find a way to do it." I think we've done 15 stories so far. I've got four or five more in the works. We're going to keep doing it because it's important. I've tried to cover Bosnia seven or eight times. It hasn't done particularly well, but I'm not deterred. I've got two more ideas in the works, and I'm not going to give up. What I like about "Dateline," what I like about the people that I work with is that we really feel, if it's an important story, let's try to find a way to tell it. That's our challenge as journalists.
TERENCE SMITH: So you feel a sense of obligation, but one that's got to be, what should I say, fit into your overall--
NEAL SHAPIRO: I think 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: See, we didn't touch on it, but that's what makes news magazines today different. They are in direct head-to-head competition with entertainment, which raises a question. Are you in the news business or the entertainment business?
NEAL SHAPIRO: I'm clearly in the news business. I spend all day talking about the impeachment process, the FBI files on Frank Sinatra. I mean, everything I'm doing today is all about the news. Now, there's nothing wrong with trying to tell news in a way in which people find it interesting and absorption. In fact, if we didn't do that, why do we have headlines on newspapers? Why do we have captions and pictures in papers? We do it to grab people's attention to get them to read the story. Otherwise it would just be one copy after copy after copy.