Call it 'info-tainment' or 'docu-schlock,' this is popular TV
Just call it dessert. It follows the evening news like pudding after a TV dinner: A young, fresh-faced couple walks the living-room audience through the latest local fads, meets people with oddball hobbies, joins wacky local contests, and chats with local celebrities.Skip to next paragraph
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And they keep the conversation as light as whipped cream and Jell-O for an audience already sated with the day's newscast.
TV executives call it ''reality programming,'' like the news. But it isn't exactly news. Some call it ''info-tainment,'' meaning information that is entertaining. Others call it ''docu-schlock.''
Whatever one calls it, shows like this have swept the airwaves. By now, the local channels nearly everywhere in the country carry at least one soft-feature, magazine-style TV show.
It was all Bill Hillier's idea.
He conceived it as clever way out of a jam, but it has proved to be a versatile creature - so far - in all kinds of television markets and situations.
It started in San Francisco in 1976. Mr. Hillier, a Harvard-educated former documentary producer with a doctorate from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, was programming director for KPIX, the local CBS station. The station was concerned about its ratings in the half-hour slot following the national news.
In TV-programming jargon, this slot is ''prime-time access.'' The Federal Communications Commission ruled in the early '70s that the networks must leave this half-hour of prime time free for local programs.
A little ironically, local stations had promptly filled their ''prime-time access'' with syndicated game shows like ''Family Feud'' and ''The Newlywed Game.'' KPIX was no exception, and it led the local ratings for the 7:30-to-8 p.m. time slot.
But it was slipping. Mr. Hillier sensed people were getting tired of game shows. And game shows were getting more expensive to buy, putting pressure on the station's budget just as ratings were weakening.
The idea came as he was flipping through a newsmagazine and happened on an article about the ever-thickening success of slick, city-based magazines like Boston, New York, and Los Angeles Magazines. His concept was to translate the city-magazine premise onto the TV screen.
A few years earlier, this would have been an expensive notion. But in 1976, TV minicams were just coming into their own. Using these shoulder-held cameras, on-location filming became virtually as easy as walking around town, and cheaper than studio production.
The minicam made the magazine premise practical. The format could tap into viewers' appetite for information about their own locale, use as many visual settings as a crew could visit, and still meet the station's budget.
''Evening Magazine'' was popular enough in San Francisco its first year that Westinghouse, which owns KPIX, began airing it on the company's other stations in Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Each station produced some of its own local segments to splice in with the show's fare from San Francisco.
It was an idea whose time had come - right after the news and before prime time. In its third year, the show was rechristened ''PM Magazine'' and was syndicated to 46 stations around the country under a cooperative arrangement. Stations substituted their own local stories as they saw fit and sent in at least one video story a week for consideration in the national package.
The next year, ''PM'' was on 106 stations. It became the most highly syndicated first-run show in the country, trailing only ''M*A*S*H*'' reruns.
Flocks of ''PM Magazine'' clones started taking to the airwaves. Now at least 125 stations and all three networks produce their own versions of the PM-style format.
In Los Angeles, ''Eye on LA'' and ''Two on the Town'' do fierce battle every week-night to gain the edge in audience share. ''PM Magazine'' itself airs just afterward.