CBS adds another newsmagazine

June 01, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Deborah Norville says she was "devastated" when she lost her job as co-host of NBC's "Today" show.

But she's back as co-host of another network show starting tonight, and this one's in prime time.

Just when you thought prime-time TV couldn't possibly have room for any more newsmagazines, along comes "America Tonight," a weekly CBS newsmagazine with Norville and Dana King as hosts. The CBS News show will debut at 9 tonight on WBAL (Channel 11) and air every Wednesday until Sept. 7.

If the show does well in the ratings, it will return as a midseason replacement in 1995, according to Joe Peyronnin, vice president for CBS News.

Peyronnin says there's room for "America Tonight" because it's different from the competition. For one thing, it will do more foreign stories than any newsmagazine except "60 Minutes," he says. Most prime-time newsmagazines -- with the exception of ABC's "Primetime Live" -- generally stick to stories in the United States.

"Our basic theory is that good stories, well told, are good stories. And we're going to do them whether they take us to Tunisia or Moscow, Russia, or Moscow, Idaho," Peyronnin said yesterday in a telephone conference call, which also included Norville, King and the show's executive producer, Michael Rubin.

Norville said that one of her reports in tonight's show is about "a mother who traveled to Tunisia and hired commandos . . . to help her kidnap back her child, who had been taken in a custody suit by her ex-husband."

Other ways that the show will try to distinguish itself from the pack are in its guest commentators and its emphasis on inviting viewers to call in during the shows.

Susan Estridge, a law professor and former campaign manager for presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, will be on tonight's broadcast offering a commentary on date rape.

"Goodness knows, that's a controversial issue," Norville said.

"What her commentary and our other guest commentators will force you to do is think about an issue, come up with your own opinion, and, if you feel so inclined, pick up the phone and let us know during the broadcast."

Viewers will be given a 900-number to call and be charged 50 cents for sharing their opinions. Such "flash" surveys have been criticized because they are unscientific and also are easily manipulated.

This is Norville's second chance at prime-time network TV. She was a correspondent on the CBS News program "Street Stories," which was also produced by Rubin.

Asked about her fall from the anchor desk at "Today" and her climb back, Norville said, "In my household, I'm referred to as the Timex lady: I took a licking and kept on ticking . . . I wouldn't wish it on anybody . . . but it made me stronger."

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