By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
A decade ago, news magazines held a prominent position in network television. As researcher Andrew Tyndall notes: “In the mid 1990s, the news divisions were a prime-time production warhorse for the broadcast networks, churning out hour after hour of magazine fare, using journalists as a cheaper, reliable alternative to screenwriters.”
Beginning in the early 2000s, network news divisions began to scale back production of these shows. For instance, Dateline, which had aired five times a week at its peak, was down to three episodes per week in 2002, and in 2007, aired just twice a week.
The genre’s diminished role became even more evident in 2007, a year in which television writers walked off the job, leaving a gaping hole in programming for four months. Instead of turning to news magazines to fill the gap, the networks appeared to increase their reliance on reality shows, which generally draw larger audiences and are considerably less expensive to produce.
The writers strike began in early November 2007, when the 12,000 members of the Writers Guild of America struck the Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers. The strike had involved writers’ demands for compensation from sales of DVDs and revenue from online media and continued until mid-February 2008.1
How did the strike affect network news?
On the whole, there appeared to be little impact, as writers on news staffs, who did not belong to the Guild, did not participate. Television news writers are members of the Writers Guild of America, East, while those who participated in the strike are from Writers Guild of America, West.
When the strike began, there was some speculation that news magazines would fill the gaps left by the strike-hit scripted shows. According to a November 2007 Los Angeles Times article, producers were stockpiling news magazine shows in anticipation of more air time.2
As of late December 2007, however, only one news magazine, CBS’ 48 Hours: Mysteries, had increased its air time, according to the Associated Press.3
News Magazine Audiences
If the networks did not turn to news magazines during the writers strike, the other bad news for the genre was that the audience for the news magazines that were airing tended to decline again in 2007.
However, its audience dropped by 4% in 2007, according to data from Nielsen Media Research, to an average of 11.5 million viewers.
Though it continues to dominate the news magazine category, it has been seven years since the venerable franchise, once one of the most-watched programs in any genre, has cracked the annual list of the 10 most popular television shows. According to its Web site, 60 Minutes finished among the Nielsen Top 10 highest-rated programs for 23 consecutive years (1977-2000), and finished No. 1 for the season five times: 1980, 1983, 1992, 1993 and 1994.4
But 60 Minutes did manage to make the weekly top 10 on several nights during the 2007-08 season. For instance, its January 6, 2008, program, which included interviews with President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, pitcher Roger Clemens and a Boston mobster, drew 18.2 million viewers, finishing in the sixth slot for the week of December 31, 2007-January 6, 2008. According to Nielsen, that week’s program generated the largest audience in the 25- to 54-year-old demographic in more than two years.5
In general however, 60 Minutes attracts an older audience, a median age of close to 60, according to published accounts.6 In 2007, signs that the show was reaching for younger viewers were clear.
In September 7, CBS News made 60 Minutes available as a free audio podcast on Apple’s iTunes, available every Sunday at 11 p.m., just hours after it first airs. In the past, CBS News distributed audio and video clips from 60 Minutes on its Web site, but iTunes — which accounted for 70% of all musical downloads in the United States in December 2007 — brought the show to a wider, younger audience.7 “60 Minutes is perfect for this kind of audio podcasting,” said the show’s executive producer, Jeff Fager. “Our broadcast has always been built on solid storytelling, with or without the pictures.”8
And for the past two years, 60 Minutes has been showcasing some younger correspondents. Foreign correspondent Lara Logan is 36, and Anderson Cooper, who is seen nightly on CNN, is 40. The program has made that partial transition without losing its veterans. Morley Safer, with the show since 1970, is 76; humorist Andy Rooney, whose A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney has appeared at the end of each show since 1978, is 89.
The other news magazines attract considerably smaller audiences each week. According to data from Nielsen, CBS News’s 48 Hours Mystery averaged 6.7 million weekly viewers in 2007, down 4% year-to-year. ABC News’s 20/20 averaged 6.6 million, a decline of 11%, and Nightline averaged 3.4 million, down 3% year-to-year.
NBC’s Dateline fell 8%, averaging 6.6 million viewers each episode.
There were two other major changes at Dateline in 2007.
First, Dateline parted ways with its co-anchor, Stone Phillips, who had been with the program for 15 years. The dismissal, which came in May, appeared to be a cost-saving measure. “The situation came down to a financial decision,” an unnamed NBC executive told the New York Times. “It is not taking anything away from Stone Phillips. But many times he was simply on the set reading a lead-in to a report. If we don’t spend it on a superfluous anchor on Dateline, we can spend the money on other things.” 9
Dateline has also had problems in 2007 with its controversial series, To Catch a Predator, which each week sets up hidden cameras to capture unsuspecting men seeking to meet underage girls for sex.
The series had been a successful one for NBC, averaging 7 million viewers during the 2006-07 season, compared to the 6.2 million other Dateline programs attracted during this time.10
And on MSNBC, NBC’s cable news channel, the series captured a big audience as reruns. In July 2007, 19 of the channel’s most popular hours were Predator reruns, the New York Times reported in late August 2007.
At the end of the year, however, there were signs the network was backing away from Predator. Heading into 2008, Dateline had aired just two sting operations — down from 11 the season before.
What could account for the drop-off? Some advertisers, according to the New York Times, have become increasingly worried about linking their products with the series, which has generated controversy since it first aired in November 2004. “We’re all concerned with what content we’re associating ourselves with,” said Andy Donchin, national broadcast director for the ad agency Carat USA.11
To Catch a Predator was also the target of two lawsuits in 2007, one filed by a former producer of the series and the other by family members of a man who committed suicide after being caught on camera by an NBC crew.12
The show also has generated unfavorable press coverage.
In September, the rival news magazine 20/20 did a critical segment.13 In the piece, ABC News’ Brian Ross alleged that suspects who had been exposed in Murphy, Texas, could not be prosecuted because Dateline and its partners had mishandled the case. On its Web site, Dateline disputed the allegations shortly after the 20/20 segment aired.14
Money also may have been a factor. Production costs for news magazines are roughly half those for drama or sitcoms. According to the New York Times, NBC paid Perverted Justice, a Portland, Ore.-based activist group, a consulting fee of $70,000 for each episode of To Catch a Predator. That is over and above what the network paid for the surveillance equipment used to nab suspected criminals.
|Design Your Own Chart|
Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Where is network news heading?
There is something important embedded in the sentiments of Jason Samuels, the senior producer who manages World News’ digital content, who says there should be “no rules” for the network’s Web site.
In a sense, he is saying the network news divisions can reinvent themselves on the Web, in mobile devices and all the other new ways they can deliver video news and information.
The question is, are they capable of reinvention? Can they produce video journalism that will be viable in a post-broadcast environment? That means more than whether it can be paid for. It also means: Can they produce something that fits these new devices and appeals to the next generation of news consumers who are using them?
Their sites are popular. Their brands give them a head start. And their legacy media, at least potentially, give them means to experiment.
On the face of it, the networks’ bread-and-butter format for reporting — the two-minute correspondent-narrated video package — seems well suited to the YouTube generation’s viewing rhythms. The packages even come equipped with 30-second unskippable pre-roll advertisements.15
Cable television, with its emphasis on live interviews, cannot compete.
So can the networks pull it off?
The answer will depend on vision and also on a word that, perhaps ironically, was a favorite of Dan Rather, courage.
1. Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes, “Tensions Lower for Coming Actors’ Negotiations,” the New York Times, February 11, 2008.
2. Matea Gold, the Los Angeles Times, November 14, 2007.
3. “News unlikely to fill TV strike holes,” Associated Press, December 23, 2007.
4. “60 Minutes: Milestones,” CBS News Web site, last accessed January 12, 2008.
5. David Bauder, “Nielsen TV Ratings: Top Rated TV Shows News Does Well for CBS, ABC Ratings,” Associated Press, January 9, 2008.
6. David Blum, “The Struggle at 60,” Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 2005.
7. “Digital developments could be tipping point for MP3,” Reuters, December 3, 2007.
8. Alex Weprin, “CBS Making 60 Minutes Available as Free Podcast,” Broadcasting and Cable, September 20, 2007.
9. Bill Carter, “NBC’s ‘Dateline,’ Its Ratings in Decline, Releases Its Longtime Anchor,” the New York Times, May 23, 2007.
10. Brian Stelter, “ ‘To Catch a Predator’ Is Falling Prey to Advertisers’ Sensibilities,” the New York Times, August 27, 2007.
13. Kim Zetter, “Dateline Mole Allegedly at DefCon with Hidden Camera — Updated: Mole Caught on Tape,” Wired, August 3, 2007. Brian Ross and Vic Walter, “To Catch a Predator: a Sting Gone Bad,” Dateline, September 7, 2007.
14. “Setting the Record Straight,” MSNBC.com, September 11, 2007.
15. The Web site tyndallreport.com, managed by researcher Andrew Tyndall, offers an interesting test of this for the moment. The site is a catalogue of every story on network evening news and allows visitors to search by topic and date, and view those pieces from the networks’ Web sites.