|By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
Through most of the 1990s, prime-time news magazines were a mainstay of network programming and profit.
They gained force because they were cheaper to produce than entertainment programming — roughly half the cost of an hour of drama or sitcoms.1 Hence a network could make money even with a relatively low-rated show.
In effect, networks used prime-time magazines to plug holes in their entertainment schedules, and tended to use more of them if they were having trouble finding successful entertainment shows. They also added value to a news division within the network budget.
The genre really took off in 1992 with NBC’s Dateline, which introduced a different organizational concept to the programs. Instead of building the shows around the personalities and reporting styles of one or two anchors — the hallmark of 60 Minutes or 20-20 on the rival networks — NBC (which had never before launched a successful magazine program) branded the show around the whole news division. Rather than relying on a particular staff to produce a once-a-week show, it tapped potentially anyone among its personnel. Any of NBC’s biggest stars might appear — a rotating cast of reporters and sometimes even anchors. The watchwords internally were synergy and cost amortization. And “Dateline” was not restricted to once a week, but could air more often, five times a week at its peak.
Its success, for a time, redefined news magazines. Rival networks began to follow suit, putting magazines on multiple nights, sometimes with different hosts. Soon those produced hours peppered the schedule. ABC put its 20/20 and Primetime together and made them into a three-night-a-week production. And CBS even took the step of expanding its news magazine franchise, 60 Minutes, into a twice-weekly show. For a time, its 48 Hours magazine also aired twice a week. At the peak of the prime-time news magazine craze in 1997, 10 out of a possible 22 hours of prime-time network programming on the Big Three were filled with news magazines.2
While such programs are officially part of the news division, the content of the programs “in no way could be said to cover the news of the day.” Instead, a 1997 study by the Project found that 55% of the content on the programs was about lifestyle and behavior, consumer news-you-can-use and celebrity entertainment. Only 8% of the stories concerned the combined areas of education, economics, foreign affairs, the military, national security, politics, government or social welfare. A separate audit of programs two years later by the journalist Marc Gunther found similar results.
But with the rise of reality programming, prime-time magazines lost their edge. A reality hit like Survivor and more recently American Idol could be even cheaper to produce and had the potential for a huge audience. What’s more, news magazines tend to attract an older demographic — people not falling into the prized 18-to-34 age range. The audience for reality shows is younger, and if one of them hits big, the financial upside has proven far greater, even if more short-lived.3
Heading into 2007, there are six news magazines that broadcast for a total of 8.5 hours each week.
The remaining news magazines are quite diverse in nature and in their success.
The audiences range anywhere from 3.75 million to 16 million people each night, according to data from Nielsen Media Research. Moreover, audience data suggest that while some shows continue to lose viewers, others have held steady or even increased their viewership.
Similarly, the economics for the format can vary widely, depending, not surprisingly, on each program’s audience trend, as well as the demographics of its viewers.
When it comes to audience, the original, most successful and often the most serious of the magazines, 60 Minutes, remains the leader. The program, still a top-25 show each week and by far the most popular magazine show, attracted an average audience of 16 million in November 2006, up slightly from the year before, according to data from Nielsen Media Research. The show, which follows CBS’s NFL programming in the fall, continues to produce much-talked-about segments. In 2006, that included an exclusive interview with the Iranian president that drew a large audience. In connection with the publication of Bob Woodward’s “State of Denial,” 60 Minutes scored a major scoop when the Washington Post journalist told the show’s Mike Wallace that an attack on coalition troops occurred every 15 minutes, a finding previously kept secret by the White House.4
For other shows, viewership is considerably smaller: an average of 8 million a night in November 2006 for 48 Hours Mystery, on CBS; 7 million for 20/20, on ABC; and 5.4 million for Dateline, on NBC.5
One other network magazine program, the long-running ABC show Nightline, gained notice in 2006. Nightline has always been a program unto itself, in part because it airs outside prime time, in late night. In late November 2005 its long-time anchor, Ted Koppel, left ABC.
The program suffered significant criticism after Koppel, executive producer Tom Bettag and their senior producing team left, replaced by co-anchors Martin Bashir, Cynthia McFadden, and Terry Moran, and executive producer James Goldston. Following its debut, the Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales called the new Nightline “a shallow shadow of its former splendid self.”6
After that shaky start, the program found something of a new groove. Its content now appears to be more of a mix of serious and softer news, though it still contains a more hard-news-oriented component than most network magazines. There is evidence that the show is also drawing more young viewers and is now practically even in total viewers with CBS’s Late Show with David Letterman. That in itself is ironic, given that before deciding to remake Nightline in its time slot, ABC had courted Letterman to replace Nightline back in 2002.
In November 2006, Nightline, with 3.75 million viewers, was up roughly 4 percent in total viewers and 9 percent in the 18-to-49 demographic compared to a year earlier, according to Nielsen data.7 It was also a small increase over Nightline’s audience in 2004, the last full year that Koppel led the news magazine. Furthermore, there was a 4 percent increase in audience size from when Koppel left Nightline in late November 2005.8
It has been argued that non-news programming has undermined the late-’90s momentum of the news magazines. “This is really the golden era of dramas and reality shows, and I think those two things have squeezed out the news magazines,” Jeff Zucker, CEO of NBC Universal Television Group, told the Los Angeles Times in May 2006.9
Increasing competition for newsmagazines has forced many of them to retool. For example, 60 Minutes not only added Katie Couric to its roster of anchors, but CNN host Anderson Cooper, 39, whose sometime aggressively personalized reporting style made headlines during Hurricane Katrina. And 60 Minutes will need to find a permanent replacement for its long-time staff member Ed Bradley, who died of leukemia in November 2006. Another of its key anchors, Mike Wallace, is 88 years old, as is the commentator Andy Rooney. The correspondent Morley Safer is 75.
Pressure to survive has led to perhaps even more experimentation at Dateline. In the spring, the show ran a special, part of a series called “To Catch a Predator,” which drew controversy for potentially violating traditional journalism ethics. According to the Washington Post, the newsmagazine agreed to pay a watchdog group more than $100,000 to help produce a special in which potential pedophiles were lured to a house in Ohio by undercover volunteers from the group. 10
Volunteers, posing as minors, would correspond with people on the Web and, in a few cases, agree to meet adults at a specified place and time. When the “suspect” showed up, Dateline cameras were there to film the scene. Some critics argued that the deal made it seem as if Dateline’s journalists were serving as law-enforcement agents rather the neutral and objective reporters. “This would certainly have me holding my breath,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.11 The controversial content generated a significant audience; an estimated 10.3 million viewers tuned in on May 10 for the special. That is roughly twice the average number of weekly Dateline viewers. For the 2006-2007 season, NBC ordered up at least six new predator specials.
If Predator signifies a trend of some kind, it may be a new kind of magazine program, something of a hybrid of reality programming and network magazine. Like a reality show, it involves staging events and watching real people play them out, combined with catching criminals, a kind of America’s Most Wanted element, under the auspices of a news division, with a manifest dose of voyeurism. If Predator continues to attract large audiences, it is not difficult to imagine more such staging of scenarios and use of hidden cameras.
After being a boon to news divisions through most of the 1990’s, the financial performance of the network magazine sector is now probably best described as uneven. There are clear winners, and there are those programs where victory is less clear.
In 2005, the latest year for which there are full data, some programs exhibited very strong growth in ad revenue while others showed a decline. In this section, we’ve also included projections based on preliminary data through the first eight months of 2006, though it should be noted that final numbers can fluctuate significantly from summer estimates.
For some time now, NBC’s Dateline, now airing twice a week, has been the leader in ad revenue. But data from TNS Media Intelligence indicate that it continues to decline. In 2005, the program’s ad revenues were down 2% (to $227 million) from the previous year.
That drop of 2%, however, represents something of a leveling off for the troubled Dateline franchise. Earlier in the decade, as the network started cutting back on the number of nights Dateline aired, the program suffered big declines in its total ad revenues — 28% in 2000, 18% in 2001 and 9% in 2002. Now that the number of nights Dateline airs has stabilized at two a week, revenues are flat. The total through the first eight months of 2006 was $105 million, with a year-end projection of roughly $158 million, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
CBS’s 60 Minutes continued to thrive in 2005. Ad revenues climbed 19%, to $129 million, a year after an increase of 21%. That was a turnaround after three previous years of declines. Through the first eight months of 2006, ad revenues were $64 million, which projects to $96 million for the year. That would be a dramatic drop, but the final figures could certainly be different.
CBS’s other news magazine, 48 Hours Mystery, did not fare as well in 2005 as 60 Minutes. After the program’s ad revenue had climbed 41% in 2004, it fell 21% in 2005, to $62 million. Still, the program has demonstrated a strong performance since it was launched in 2002, when ad revenues were just shy of $14 million. And ad revenues through the first eight months suggested that 2006 could be a very strong year for 48 Hours Mystery. TNS reported $55 million, which projects to $82.5 million for the year.
Over at ABC, 20/20 appears to be rebounding, with 2005 revenues increasing 19% over 2004, to $115 million). And data through the first eight months of 2006 suggest another strong year in 2006: TNS Media Intelligence put 20/20 ad revenue at $81 million. which projects to $122 million for the full 12 months. It should be noted, however, that the 2005 and 2006 totals are far below what it had been generating earlier in the decade.
The decline of news magazines seems to have largely stabilized. The magazines are not vanishing, as some might have predicted. But some changes seem evident. Networks are no longer cloning the shows to use them as cash cows and patch holes in their schedules. The shows are also no longer multiple-night efforts to brand the news division. In many ways we have returned to the era in which each magazine had its own distinct identity, built more around its reporters and anchors and certain topics. Ironically, the most vulnerable now may be Dateline, the program that soared by moving away from that formula. It has become a generic nameplate, under which shows as diverse as a special interview by the Nightly News anchor, Brian Williams, might air, and so would Predator.
Instead, the new energy and experimentation inside the news divisions may be moving elsewhere, to the Web. That may well be where the financial future, and the future of a network’s brand, will be played out.