Newsmagazines Woo Viewers As Must-See TV Drama
NEW YORK — Unlike Karla Faye Tucker, who was executed in Texas earlier this month amid global attention to her case, Patrick Rogers bided his time on death row in relative obscurity.
But as his execution day approached, producers at "Dateline NBC" began chronicling the case against Mr. Rogers, a young black man convicted of murdering a white police officer in Paris, Texas. A one-hour edition of "Dateline" in January took viewers on an emotional roller coaster as Rogers prepared to face death by lethal injection.
As the clock ticked down, Rogers's mother, a quiet woman with a gentle face, waited at home with family members. At the moment she realized her son had died, she bolted out the back door and crashed to the ground, kicking and screaming. The cameras recorded every moment.
If the airwaves seem suddenly filled with such life-and-death drama, it might be because television newsmagazines are propagating faster than the news they purport to cover. In the past year, ABC and CBS each added a third newsmagazine to their prime-time schedules, "Dateline NBC" began airing a fourth night, and ABC launched a second edition of "20/20" on Mondays. The three networks now produce 11 hours of newsmagazines a week in prime time, when television's largest viewing audiences gather.
The explosive growth of newsmagazines is driven by network executives' desire to deliver more viewers for less money. Newsmagazines are cheaper to produce than the average sitcom and can generate audiences as big as those that watch hit shows like "Seinfeld" or "ER." But was the case of Rogers, who was executed six months before the "Dateline" segment aired, really news?
Although produced by network news divisions and hosted by news personalities like Tom Brokaw and Sam Donaldson, newsmagazines have drawn fire from media critics concerned about both their quality and growing quantity.
"The dramatization of personal-hardship stories, which have no larger significance in society, is not useful journalism," says Joan Konner, publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. "It's pure exploitation. It serves no public interest, other than entertainment," says Ms. Konner, who produced and wrote more than 50 documentaries for NBC News.
Konner says today's newsmagazines have strayed far afield from the muckraking turf plowed by CBS's "60 Minutes," whose launch in 1968 is considered the birth of the genre. Critics say there are simply too many of these shows in prime time.
Don Hewitt, the founding father of "60 Minutes" and executive producer, likens such spinoffs to watering down a good recipe: "For years, '60 Minutes' has been making great soup. And then somebody comes along and says, 'You know, if you put some water in that soup, you could get two bowls for one.' "
More than a few newsmagazine producers might beg to differ. But few would deny that the economics of producing such programs makes their "cloning" almost inevitable. A one-hour network newsmagazine costs about $600,000 to produce, less than half the price tag for a network comedy or drama.
And for less money, newsmagazines often drive higher ratings. On most Tuesday evenings in 1997, for example, "Dateline NBC" drew 16 million viewers, handily beating ABC's "NYPD Blue" in the ratings. At the same time, NBC is able to use material from "Dateline" for its cable venture MSNBC or its overseas broadcasting services.
A question of survival
The latest arrival in the network newsmagazine race is "ABC News Saturday Night." Its debut broadcast Jan. 24 was supposed to deliver live reports on Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Cuba.
But like virtually every US media outlet at the time, the new newsmagazine simply recapped news and gossip about the president's alleged affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
In the first 10 days after the story broke, network newsmagazines broadcast 60 segments on the scandal, according to the Video Information Show Report. And viewers, it seems, couldn't get enough. Ratings for CBS's "48 Hours" and ABC's "20/20" more than doubled during the first week of the story.
In covering the world, each newsmagazine offers its own perspective: ABC's "PrimeTime Live" delivers hard-hitting exposs, while "20/20" often focuses on consumer topics; CBS's "48 Hours" usually devotes an entire hour to a single subject.
Many network newsmagazines promote themselves as an in-depth look at topical subjects and breaking news stories. So it's not surprising that what especially irks the producers of these shows is the charge that newsmagazines are really in the business of offering entertainment disguised as news.
Of the approach "Dateline NBC" takes, executive producer Neal Shapiro says, "We define our show differently [from '60 Minutes'], so that news is not just what appears on the front page. Is it a crime that more people are watching newsmagazines and fewer are tuning into poorly performing comedies?"
Maybe not. But when news is packaged with entertainment values, serious issues can suddenly seem less dignified. Public views on life after death may be newsworthy, for example, but viewers wouldn't know it from a "48 Hours" segment last year that opened with footage of a man engulfed by flames. A booming voiceover asked, "Do you believe in hell? He didn't until he went there. Doctors believe; will you?"
The way one viewer sees it
Mark Gordon, a high school English teacher in Palo Alto, Calif., watches anywhere from two to six newsmagazines a week. He tries to catch CBS's "48 Hours" because of its regular reports on the future of teenagers. But Mr. Gordon also says, "A lot of newsmagazines focus on what's sick and wrong in our society, which is not always what's newsworthy."
He offered as an example a "Dateline" segment that aired recently on how a jailed mass murderer tried to profit from his crime. "A story like that has no redeeming value. I can't do anything about mass murderers, and I don't need to know how they're trying to make money."
Bernard Goldberg, a correspondent for "48 Hours," watched by 10 million viewers weekly, says audience tastes have a lot to with newsmagazine content. "The American people punish us if we put something on the air that's too smart. They reward us if we put something on about Marv Albert. So what do you expect television executives to do?"
A few years ago, Mr. Goldberg coproduced two editions of "48 Hours" exploring the future of the West Bank and Nelson Mandela's release from jail in South Africa. "The audience punished us severely in both cases. The ratings were horrendous," he says.
"But when '48 Hours' covered spring break in south Florida, really an excuse to show half-naked women for an hour, it got the highest ratings in the history of the show," he says.
Yet even the most voyeuristic and sensational stories sit astride investigative pieces that win high praise from the television industry. Last year "Dateline NBC" drew more than two dozen awards, including three Emmys, an Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, and a National Press Club Award.
If the content of the new newsmagazines seems to be drifting toward soft news and entertainment, it may have something to do with the fact that the very definition of news has changed. "Two generations ago, stories didn't make the evening news unless they involved geopolitics or the military," says Hugh Downs, the veteran anchor of ABC's "20/20."
"As a result, an awful lot of important information went unreported, especially stories about family issues, consumer scams, and health. Lowell Thomas just wouldn't do those types of stories. But now Peter Jennings does, and so do we on '20/20,' " says Mr. Downs.
Coping with a 'hard news drought'
As the definition of what constitutes news expands, traditional news seems to be contracting. The end of the cold war and America's continuing economic prosperity have put serious news in short supply.
"There's a hard-news shortage at a time when news outlets are exploding in number," says Britt Hume, Washington assistant managing editor of the Fox News Channel. "That means that if you're doing a magazine show and you want to have it keyed to events in the news, you're probably going to wind up dealing with subjects that are silly and tabloidy."
But Mr. Hume doesn't seem particularly worried about that prospect. "There's no use wringing your hands. News used to be coverage of things that were momentous. Now people are interested in things that are gripping but less momentous. As the world changes, the news will change with it."
TV Newsmagazine Launches
60 Minutes (CBS) 1968
20/20 (ABC) 1978
48 Hours (CBS) 1988
PrimeTime Live (ABC) 1989
Dateline NBC 1992
Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel (CBS) 1997
ABC News Saturday Night 1998