Cashing in on newsmagazines Shows deliver profits--and ratings

March 03, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

The president of ABC Entertainment calls them the "dramas of the '90s."

At CBS, they are referred to as the future of network news.

NBC is just as excited, despite its best and brightest, "Dateline NBC" with Jane Pauley, being badly burned by a rigged test-crash of a GMC pickup in a November show.

Prime-time newsmagazines are the hottest moneymaker in entertainment TV this year. Because of that, new ones will be springing up all over the dial in coming months -- including ABC's "Day One," which debuts at 8 p.m. Sunday on WJZ (Channel 13).

The three traditional networks now deliver six prime-time newsmagazines: "Dateline NBC," ABC's "PrimeTime Live" and "20/20," plus "60 Minutes," "Street Stories" and "48 Hours" on CBS.

By September, another five will debut, led by ABC's "Day One" with Forrest Sawyer. The other four are: a new and untitled show produced by CBS News Producer Andrew Heyward and starring Connie Chung, the first network news entry from Fox and two magazines on NBC, one featuring Faith Daniels.

That means there will be more news shows in prime time next year than dramas, like "Murder She Wrote" or "Law & Order." That's a first in TV history.

Like most things in TV, the reason for the proliferation of newsmagazines is economic: They make money.

The six magazines now on the air are expected to generate about $670 million for the 1992-1993 TV season, according to Broadcasting magazine. With the five new ones, that figure is expected to top $1 billion next year. The financial significance is amplified by the fact that this is new revenue coming from news divisions -- chronic money-losers for years.

And much of the revenue is kept as profit, because newsmagazines are relatively cheap to produce. While an hour of dramatic or comedy programming -- such as "L.A. Law" or "Northern Exposure" -- costs a minimum of $1 million per episode to make, the newsmagazines seldom cost more than $500,000 an hour.

Best of all, the newsmagazines have been faring better in the Nielsen ratings than costlier programming. An entertainment program such as ABC's "Young Indiana Jones" costs almost $2 million an episode to produce because it comes from George Lucas and involves big special effects and location shooting. On a good week, the show earns a 10 rating (each ratings point equals 931,000 TV households) and finishes about 60th among all prime-time shows.

Then, there's ABC's "20/20," the newsmagazine with Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters. It averages a 15 rating and finishes in the top 20 shows. It costs the network about one-fourth of what "Young Indiana Jones" does.

Even the disgraced "Dateline NBC" is still pulling an 11 rating. Compare that with, say, Barry Levinson's "Homicide," which earned an 8.5 rating in its last outing.

Despite concessions from unions in Baltimore, where the show is filmed, and strict bottom-line filmmaking by Levinson, "Homicide" still costs NBC about $1 million an episode. "Dateline NBC," meanwhile, costs the network only about $400,000 to $500,000, according to industry estimates.

"Dateline NBC" alone will generate $90 million for the network, according to Broadcasting. Even with production costs, agency commissions and advertising expenses subtracted, the show is estimated to earn as much as $45 million in annual profits.

That makes "Dateline" the first prime-time newsmagazine to earn profits in 18 straight attempts by NBC. Without "Dateline," NBC's entire news division would lose money this year instead of showing a profit -- for the first time in two decades -- of $15 million. And it's mainly because "Dateline NBC's" ratings are second in its time period each Tuesday at 10 p.m.

Getting good ratings on prime-time entertainment TV can have very little to do with traditional notions of news or TV journalism. In the arena of prime time, the idea is not necessarily for Ed Bradley's "Street Stories" to "scoop," say, Diane Sawyer's "PrimeTime Live" on a story, but, rather, for "Street Stories" to offer something more compelling to watch than "I Witness Video," with its camcorder pictures of actual murders, or a docudrama purporting to tell the "true story" of Amy Fisher.

"I think they are . . . giving the audience their drama fix," ABC Entertainment President Ted Harbert said of his network's newsmagazines. "I mean, I'm just a habitual '20/20' viewer. I think that show delivers drama every week.

"And . . . there's the 'PrimeTime Live' where they went with the hidden cameras to the appliance repairmen, and the 'PrimeTime Live' . . . when they went with hidden cameras into the Denver school district and watched the kids smuggling guns into school and disrupting the classrooms. There's no more dramatic programming [that] I've seen in a long time."

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