By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
Once considered the economic engine of network news divisions and an almost ubiquitous feature of prime time, network news magazines in 2008 saw their audiences continue to shrink, along with their share of the prime-time lineup.
The programs, including NBC’s Dateline, CBS’ 48 Hours Mystery, and ABC’s 20/20 and Nightline, drew fewer viewers even as several sought to widen their audience with emphases on human interest and true crime stories. Part of the decline was caused by scheduling. CBS moved 48 Hours to Saturday night, one of the least-viewed nights on television. And Dateline never landed in a consistent time or day of the week, which denied it time to build a loyal audience.
Only 60 Minutes, which emphasized traditional “hard” news and features and enjoys an enviable time slot that often follows the network’s NFL broadcasts, thrived in 2008. Its weekly viewership was almost twice that of its next biggest rival, and it returned occasionally to the list of top 10 shows on television in viewership.
Taken together, the average monthly audience for the five remaining news magazines fell 7% in 2008, from 29 million to 27 million.
This is a big change from a decade ago, when the shows held a prominent position in network television. In the early part of the decade, network news divisions began to scale back production of these shows in the face of falling ratings. They also began to experiment with new formats to draw viewers.
The scaling back continued through 2008. For instance, Dateline, which had aired regularly four times a week at its peak, was broadcast just once a week on a regular basis in 2008, and it gave up altogether on a controversial crime-fighting format that drew a lawsuit.
48 Hours, perhaps because of its Saturday night airing, was the biggest loser of viewers among the news magazines in 2008. The program lost 12% of its audience, which fell from a weekly average of 6.7 million viewers to 5.9 million.
Most of its competitors also lost viewers, though not as drastically.
Second-place ABC News’s 20/20 averaged 6.1 million weekly viewers in 2008, a decline of 8% from 2007.
NBC News’s Dateline averaged 6.2 million, down 6% year-to-year.
Nightline, also on ABC, stands apart because of its late-night time slot and its relatively stronger emphasis on hard news. It averaged 3.4 million viewers. That was down just slightly, by 1% year-to-year. But the program has held its share of the audience since 2006. And during the last half of the 2008, the program regularly garnered more viewers than the Late Show With David Letterman, a competitor in its 11:30 p.m. daily time slot.1
Nightline will face a new challenge when Conan O’Brien takes over the Tonight Show from Jay Leno in June 2009. Despite Nightline’s relative success in 2008, many inside the industry expect O’Brien’s arrival to change the dynamics of late night. If ABC is convinced it can gain share against new competitors at 11:30, particularly of O’Brien’s ratings are lower than Leno’s were, it may well replace Nightline with an entertainment show.
2006 to 2008
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Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
ABC reportedly considered ending Nightline to make room for a show hosted by Jay Leno. The speculation was reminiscent of ABC’s move in 2002 to offer David Letterman the Nightline time slot. But NBC held on to Leno by offering him the prime-time slot of 10 p.m. five nights a week starting in the fall of 2009. Nightline is slated to live on into 2009.
Still reigning supreme was 60 Minutes, the one magazine program that has consistently relied more heavily on hard news. It drew an average of 11.9 million viewers in 2008, up 3% compared to 2007.
CBS’ 60 Minutes celebrated its 40th anniversary on the air in 2008 and increased its audience slightly by capitalizing on interest in the presidential campaign. In 2008, the program remained the most popular news magazine on television, and, in some weeks, one of the most-watched programs of any sort.
Part of the program’s success was its ability to attract presidential candidates for interviews. In September, the program devoted its hour to back-to-back interviews John McCain and Barack Obama. And after the election, 60 Minutes interviewed Obama campaign staff and then the next week featured the president-elect’s first post-election interview. It drew 24 million viewers, the news magazine’s largest audience since January 17, 1999, when the program included a story about an American woman’s murder in South Africa. Moreover, those interviews won 60 Minutes the title of most-watched program on television for two consecutive weeks, a feat that the program last achieved in 1993.2
In early 2009, CBS added Byron Pitts as a contributing correspondent to the show, making him the first African-American member of the on-air staff since Ed Bradley’s death in 2006.
As they struggle for audience, the news magazines also played with their formats in an effort to redefine themselves.
Dateline took a step back from one of its more salacious specialties. Its series “To Catch a Predator,” which first aired in 2004, used hidden cameras to greet unsuspecting men who allegedly used the Internet to arrange for sex with minors.
The series attracted high ratings but also drew criticism from some who charged that the program depended on unethical deception of suspects, hindered the prosecution of alleged offenders and relied on a problematic cooperation with law enforcement officials. Dateline aired its last episode of the series in December 2007. In June 2008, NBC settled a $105 million lawsuit brought by relatives of a man who committed suicide in 2006 after being caught in the on-camera sting.
Without the predator segment, Dateline, which began in 1992 as a showcase for NBC’s news division, returned to a more traditional menu of news stories and features. But NBC programmed infrequent and unpredictable airings of the Sunday version of show in 2008. Over all, the Sunday ratings were down 4% to an average of 5.5 million viewers over the year.
Dateline, which laid off long-time host Stone Phillips in 2007, cut staff more deeply in late 2008. 3 The program’s West Coast correspondent, John Larson, was let go in late December, as were a “handful of people” assigned to Dateline in Washington.4
1. Tom Jicha, “Elections Are Over but Nightline Still Beats Dave,” Sun-Sentinel, November 20, 2008
2. Steven Herbert, “CBS Draws Season-High Audience,” City News Service, November 18, 2008
3. Michele Greppi, “NBC Universal to Cut Almost 500 Jobs,” TV Week, December 4, 2008
4.Sinead Carew, “Jobs cuts hit hard in media, communications,” Reuters Media File, December 5, 2008