MotherJones SO93: The truth squads

Why the explosion of television newsmagazines? Will the new shows take their cues from Mike Wallace--or Geraldo? Mother Jones asked industry insider John Brodie to find out, and surveyed network producters to see how they rate themselves.

By September you'll be able to watch at least one TV newsmagazine every day of the week. Even Fox, whose young audience normally revels in programs like "Beverly Hills, 90210," will try its hand at the burgeoning format. Fox's "Front Page" and its frosh brethren, "Turning Point" (ABC), "Now with Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric" (NBC), and "Eye to Eye with Connie Chung" (CBS), will each struggle to project a unique voice in what "Eye to Eye" Executive Producer Andrew Heyward has dubbed "a sea of Nuzak." Even Disney is getting into the act, with its new syndicated newsmagazine, "The Crusaders," scheduled to launch this fall.

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In the past, there were few enough newsmagazines that each could have a night of its own. In the weeks ahead, producers will find themselves in a war of attrition as their programs face the added challenge of sharing a night with a competing newsmag.

Why have the fates smiled on informational programming? Have TV programmers awakened to a higher calling than anesthetizing us with dopey dramas and sitcom pabulum? Doubtful. There are other reasons for the renaissance:

* Newsmagazines are cheap. The average hour of prime-time dramatic or action programming costs roughly $1 million per episode to produce. A newsmagazine--even with a million-dollar anchor like Connie Chung-- costs half that. "It's the cost accountants, not the programmers, who are cloning our show," "60 minutes" Executive Producer Don Hewitt told Mother Jones. "What happened was that cost accountants said, 'Hey, here's a way to get through the recession.'"

* The real-life drama of the newsmagazines grabs TV audiences more viscerally than the best programs penned by Hollywood's star dramatists. There is a laundry list of dramatic failures in the past three seasons (like NBC's "I'll Fly Away" and ABC's "Civil Wars"), but newsmagazines have proved to be low-cost ratings successes. NBC's "Law & Order," arguably the best-written dramatic hour on TV, consistently takes second place in its time period to CBS News's "48 Hours." Last season, the ABC newsmagazine "20/20" beat CBS's critically acclaimed drama "Picket Fences." Even a newer program like "Dateline NBC" consistently delivered larger audiences than ABC's "Civil Wars."

"The newsmagazines are the new dramas," says CBS's Andrew Heyward. "Since no new TV drama has [successfully] been developed in the past three years, it's clear that truth is stranger than fiction."

* Conventional wisdom says: If you air them, they will watch. Network programmers are now aware that if they leave an informational program on the air long enough, viewers will come around. The highest-rated newsmagazine, "60 MINUTES," has also been on the air the longest (twenty-five seasons). ABC's "20/20," which has been on the air the second-longest (fifteen seasons), also wins in its time period. Neither were ratings dynamos out of the gate.

* News programs amortize the costs of network news divisions. Large corporations like General Electric (which owns NBC) and Capital Cities/ABC, Inc., avoid the public-relations headache of sacking news personnel. Networks also showcase their high-priced correspondent- stars as something other than sporadic backup anchors for the evening news. Jane Pauley, for example, co-anchors "Dateline NBC," while ABC's Diane Sawyer fronts "PrimeTime Live."

* Upscale Americans often work late and skip the evening news. Many of these viewers, whom advertisers covet, still have a reflexive need for a quick fix of news at day's end. The newsmagazines speak to that need.

* Advertisers are willing to pay a premium for commercial time on these shows. They believe that newsmagazine watchers pay closer attention to the TV than sitcom fans. As Eric Braun of Frank Magid and Associates points out, "To watch a sitcom, you can kind of go on automatic pilot."

* Newsmagazines are the perfect vehicles for channel surfers. Generally, the programs are broken down into segments that can be watched with no prior knowledge of previous episodes. A virgin viewer is at a greater disadvantage if he jumps into an episode of "LA Law" than if he parachutes into the second half hour of "60 MINUTES."

* The genre fills a void left by the local newscasts' willful secession of good stories. As local newscasts try to outsensationalize their competitors, they invariably choose stories for their headlines rather than their narrative value. Tabloid shows like "Hard Copy" and "A Current Affair" were the first to take up the narrative slack. "Local news gave up on storytelling and started covering fires and car chases," says David Corvo, the executive producer of Fox's "Front Page." "One of the reasons tabloid shows succeeded is that they tell stories with beginnings, middles, and ends."

Several years ago, TV producers realized that newsmagazines also could win big audiences by telling compelling stories like "the tabs." Network producers have thankfully eschewed the tabs' penchant for reenactment and checkbook journalism. Of course, network news producers are often graduates of the nation's journalism schools, while the tabs are run largely by a mafia of Australian journalists, many of whom have done time in Rupert Murdoch's media empire.

* Network magazines shoot compelling narratives, thanks to recent technical advances. Cameras have gotten lighter and smaller. Lighting has improved. Talented producers like Mark Obenhaus of "Day One" (known for his handsomely shot, almost lyrical pieces) are referred to by their colleagues as "filmmakers."

What will be the immediate results of the newsmag glut? Heightened competition for A-list stories will be one of the first behind-the- scenes effects. Topics like car-jacking and society murderers will get done to death.

In addition, the glut is already having a detrimental effect on the quality of the correspondents. The towpath that the older TV correspondents traveled (cub reporter at a local station, national correspondent, foreign correspondent, and finally crusader on a newsmag) has broken down. Instead, many of today's correspondents earned their stripes dodging makeup men.

CBS News's Morley Safer and Fox's Ron Reagan, Jr., perform similar duties on their respective programs ("60 MINUTES" and "Front Page"), but the path each took to his post speaks volumes about what a newsmag glut portends. Safer cut his eyeteeth in Canadian broadcasting and distinguished himself reporting from the front lines in Vietnam. Ronnie II has danced in his tightie-whities on "Saturday Night Live," hosted a late-night talk show, and hosted/produced news documentaries for the E! network.

The glut will also have positive effects, as the newer shows struggle to develop fresh ways to tell familiar stories. Imagine a newsstand filled with thirteen titles, all of which are slight variations on Newsweek, and you begin to grasp the lack of voice in the TV newsmag world. The correspondents, the graphics, the music, and the length of segments may differ from program to program, but the formats are remarkably similar, usually slight variations on either "60 MINUTES," with its three-story-per-hour format, or "48 Hours," with its single- theme structure. When Steve Friedman, former executive-in-charge of "Dateline NBC," was asked how his show would differ from the others, he quipped, "How is 'Murphy Brown' different from 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show'? How is 'Roseanne' different from 'All in the Family'?"

Andrew Heyward brings a touch of whimsy to "Eye to Eye" with CBS correspondents Bill Geist and Robert Krulwich. Geist once penned memorable Talk of the Town-type articles for the New York Times, and, on "Eye to Eye," Krulwich delivers off-the-cuff pieces like "A Day in the Life of a Phone Booth."

David Corvo, executive producer of "Front Page," has told his reporters that he wants segments with attitude. "I've tried to instill in everybody an attitude that would be a unifying force," says the producer. "We should tweak the cultural and political icons." Corvo wants his reporters to file essays and observation pieces in addition to news pieces, and he intends to use short bites as lead-outs to commercials.

Don Hewitt of "60 Minutes" isn't worried about the new competition. "We know something that I'm amazed no one else has figured out. What keeps you there is what you hear more than what you see. We don't put words to pictures, we put pictures to words. It's telling stories, and the '60 Minutes' repertory company tells stories better than anyone in broadcasting."

Ultimately, the newsmag glut will probably prove to be another passing fancy in an industry where every "Addams Family" has its "Munsters" and every "Bewitched" its "I Dream of Jeannie." By next summer, the ranks should have thinned, as the best survive and the imitators head for the showers.

John Brodie covers TV and film for Variety.

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