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
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
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
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. …