Newsmags in Trouble

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The network newsmagazine is becoming an endangered species. Once a prime time staple, the genre may soon go the way of the Western. Word is that Dateline: NBC, one of the most stalwart news franchises, may be in its final season. Its Friday edition, already suffering lackluster ratings, has been bumped to make way for the new Dick Wolf drama, Conviction.

Among 25- to 54-year-olds, the key news demo, a measly 3.4 million have been watching that edition, and only 2.9 million on average in that group have watched the Sunday edition lately.

Of course, the folks at NBC News are working overtime to reinvigorate Dateline. For the time being, the show has picked up a Saturday perch, and there’s been talk of doing more hidden-camera segments for May sweeps since a January broadcast helped snare online pedophiles and a ratings spike.

The NFL’s return to NBC this fall may offer a reprieve, as well, considering that Dateline’s format could be collapsed easily if football runs over into prime time.

NBC News president Steve Capus touts the show’s “unparalleled versatility,” calling it “a production house, a newsmagazine and a prime-time specials unit.” He insists “the franchise is alive and well” and notes its “extensive” Hurricane Katrina coverage.

But the support of the news division chief may not be enough to save a franchise that’s been on NBC since 1992 and was long a dependable performer when the network’s fallback strategy for a cancelled series was “put on another Dateline.”

But it’s not just Dateline. ABC’s 20/20 and Primetime, which also air multiple editions, have their troubles, too.

Part of what has put Dateline’s future in jeopardy is the same thing that made newsmagazines appealing to networks in the first place: their relative low-cost compared to dramas and comedies. That sales pitch is now part of what makes reality shows so alluring.

The truth is that most of these newsmagazines long ago dropped any pretense of journalistic rigor behind the “news” prefix. The heavy dose of celebrity, scandal and true crime that dominate these newsmagazines are nothing new.

Neither is these shows’ propensity for cross-promoting entertainment fare from their respective corporate empires. (Remember Primetime’s hard-hitting interview with Geena Davis, star of ABC’s marginal drama Commander in Chief?)

But who needs all this stuff when Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood—not to mention the networks’ own morning shows—already offer the same on a daily basis? While Primetime scored its highest ratings in three years recently with a solid piece on Joran Van der Sloot, the main suspect in the Natalee Holloway case, it surely won’t boost ratings long-term when missing blonde dramas play in a seemingly constant loop on cable news.

60 Minutes manages to deliver respectable ratings for CBS with substantive journalism after more than 37 years on the air. The network’s 48 Hours performs well enough, but it enjoys something of a sinecure in Saturday prime time, when its main competition is reruns.

The sad truth is that, if newsmagazines were to go away tomorrow, it wouldn’t be viewers who mourned their passing.

The ones likely to be crying, apart from those who toil on these shows, would be the publicists at the networks and entertainment divisions of NBC-Universal, Disney or CBS Corp., who prize the shows too much as promotional platforms and too little as destinations for compelling news that matters.

The network newsmagazine is becoming an endangered species. Once a prime time staple, the genre may soon go the way of the Western.

Word is that Dateline: NBC, one of the most stalwart newsmag franchises, may be in its final season. Its Friday edition, already suffering lackluster ratings, has been bumped to make way for the new Dick Wolf drama, Conviction.

E-mail comments to bcrobins@reedbusiness.com

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