Networks finding big viewer appetite for news shows

April 06, 1992|By Bill Carter | Bill Carter,New York Times

NEW YORK -- Just how much news can television use?

As the network news divisions add programs from early morning through the entire night and continue to seek the financial advantages of using news programs instead of increasingly costly entertainment shows, the limit to the air time available to these programs appears to be nowhere in sight.

All three big networks now have all-night newscasts. In the fall, NBC will break the Saturday morning tradition of children's cartoon shows to add a Saturday version of "Today," a move that most analysts expect will be highly successful among adults.

Nowhere is the increasing access of network news more noticeable than in prime time. This television season, news magazine programs have become the most successful genre in television.

"Dateline," the new NBC news magazine program, last week produced the most promising results that network has seen in its two-decade search for a news presence in prime time.

During the current television season, news programs in prime time have averaged just under a 15 rating, well above the average rating for all network prime-time programs, a 12.5.

Indeed, every network news magazine program improved its ratings this season: CBS' "60 Minutes" vaulted back to the No. 1 position and ABC's "20/20" gained almost 10 percent. CBS' "48 Hours" and ABC's "Prime Time Live," once considered near extinction, emerged this season as the two most improved programs in television.

David F. Poltrack, senior vice president of research for CBS, said the results proved that a news or information program could thrive in every hour of prime time as long as it competed only against entertainment.

"There is an information-driven audience that will go to the news and information programs over the traditional drama or comedy show," he said, "and this audience is large enough to make programming these shows financially attractive."

The financial considerations are clearly a factor in making news television's growth area (about $700,000 an hour versus $1 million or more for an entertainment hour).

In addition, many news programs apparently never wear out their welcome as entertainment shows inevitably do ("60 Minutes" improved in its 23rd year, "20/20" in its 13th).

One danger for a news program, Mr. Poltrack said, would be in trying to move it into a time period already filled by either another news program.

ABC will attempt to defy those odds next fall when it introduces its third weekly news magazine -- and takes on "60 Minutes" where it lives, Sunday nights at 7.

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