Newsmagazines Woo Viewers as Must-See TV Drama

Article excerpt

Unlike Karla Faye Tucker, who was executed in Texas earlier this month amid global attention to her case, Patrick Rogers bided his time on death row in relative obscurity.

But as his execution day approached, producers at "Dateline NBC" began chronicling the case against Mr. Rogers, a young black man convicted of murdering a white police officer in Paris, Texas. A one-hour edition of "Dateline" in January took viewers on an emotional roller coaster as Rogers prepared to face death by lethal injection.

As the clock ticked down, Rogers's mother, a quiet woman with a gentle face, waited at home with family members. At the moment she realized her son had died, she bolted out the back door and crashed to the ground, kicking and screaming. The cameras recorded every moment. If the airwaves seem suddenly filled with such life-and-death drama, it might be because television newsmagazines are propagating faster than the news they purport to cover. In the past year, ABC and CBS each added a third newsmagazine to their prime-time schedules, "Dateline NBC" began airing a fourth night, and ABC launched a second edition of "20/20" on Mondays. The three networks now produce 11 hours of newsmagazines a week in prime time, when television's largest viewing audiences gather. The explosive growth of newsmagazines is driven by network executives' desire to deliver more viewers for less money. Newsmagazines are cheaper to produce than the average sitcom and can generate audiences as big as those that watch hit shows like "Seinfeld" or "ER." But was the case of Rogers, who was executed six months before the "Dateline" segment aired, really news? Although produced by network news divisions and hosted by news personalities like Tom Brokaw and Sam Donaldson, newsmagazines have drawn fire from media critics concerned about both their quality and growing quantity. "The dramatization of personal-hardship stories, which have no larger significance in society, is not useful journalism," says Joan Konner, publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. "It's pure exploitation. It serves no public interest, other than entertainment," says Ms. Konner, who produced and wrote more than 50 documentaries for NBC News. Konner says today's newsmagazines have strayed far afield from the muckraking turf plowed by CBS's "60 Minutes," whose launch in 1968 is considered the birth of the genre. Critics say there are simply too many of these shows in prime time. Don Hewitt, the founding father of "60 Minutes" and executive producer, likens such spinoffs to watering down a good recipe: "For years, '60 Minutes' has been making great soup. And then somebody comes along and says, 'You know, if you put some water in that soup, you could get two bowls for one.' " More than a few newsmagazine producers might beg to differ. But few would deny that the economics of producing such programs makes their "cloning" almost inevitable. A one-hour network newsmagazine costs about $600,000 to produce, less than half the price tag for a network comedy or drama. And for less money, newsmagazines often drive higher ratings. On most Tuesday evenings in 1997, for example, "Dateline NBC" drew 16 million viewers, handily beating ABC's "NYPD Blue" in the ratings. At the same time, NBC is able to use material from "Dateline" for its cable venture MSNBC or its overseas broadcasting services. A question of survival The latest arrival in the network newsmagazine race is "ABC News Saturday Night." Its debut broadcast Jan. 24 was supposed to deliver live reports on Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Cuba. But like virtually every US media outlet at the time, the new newsmagazine simply recapped news and gossip about the president's alleged affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. In the first 10 days after the story broke, network newsmagazines broadcast 60 segments on the scandal, according to the Video Information Show Report. …