'Dateline NBC' is set to expand further, defying cries of doom

July 25, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

LOS ANGELES — Remember all the media experts who said "Dateline NBC" was finished last year after it admitting rigging a test-crash of a GM pickup truck?

The conventional wisdom was that it cost the magazine -- and possibly NBC News -- its credibility, and they could never get that back.

The phony test crash did cost Michael Gartner his job as president of NBC News. But "Dateline" is an entirely different story.

There are not one but two nights of "Dateline" on the network each week this summer. Come September, there are going to be three nights of "Dateline" -- Tuesday at 10, Wednesday at 9, and Friday at 9. And NBC News President Andrew Lack says there are more to come.

"One of the features that we're laying out with "Dateline" in its new incarnation is that it is a structure that positions us comfortably to expand to a fourth and fifth hour," Lack told TV critics here this weekend.

"The fact is that I believe the way NBC News ought to proceed to that fourth and fifth hour, which we will get to one of these days, is by taking one franchise and stretching it out -- rather than by trying to create another new newsmagazine."

In case any of that isn't clear, Lack is saying that there are going to be five nights a week of "Dateline" on NBC, if he has his way.

In addition to Lack, "Dateline" Producer Neal Shapiro and anchors Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips also met with critics to announce the newsmagazine's expansion to three nights.

It should be noted that it's not a pure expansion, because "Now With Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric" will be no more come September. Brokaw and Couric will be "involved" with "Dateline," according to Lack, but the front-line anchor team will be Pauley and Phillips on all three nights.

The main reasons for that are trying to keep Couric and Brokaw from burning out, while consolidating its magazine resources in one place, according to Lack.

It's also about money. Even though "Dateline" finished sixth last year among the 10 prime-time newsmagazines on the air, it still made about $10 million profit for NBC, according to the most conservative industry estimates. In June, NBC went to two nights a week of "Dateline" and, during some weeks, both nights finished in the Top 20 Nielsen shows for the week. Why not go for three?

"Dateline" is, of course, only part of a much larger story, the incredible boom in prime-time newsmagazines in recent years and their refusal to go away -- despite guarantees once again from the pundits that the boom was about to go bust any minute.

In a Sun story last year, I explained the boom through an economic analysis. The fundamental fact: It cost about $400,000 a week to make a newsmagazine as opposed to $1.2 million to make an hourlong prime-time drama, such as "L.A. Law." Yet, newsmagazines were generally getting higher ratings than the dramas. So, which would you rather have on your network?

But that only scratches the surface of the money-making potential of the magazines. For example, the networks have started selling off secondary, international rights to the magazine shows and will make another $50 million to $100 million from that this season. Newsmagazines are simply the greatest way to make money off news that the networks have ever known. They have turned news divisions from loss leaders to profit centers.

One result is that Pauley finds herself queen of the hill again at NBC. Much of the press conference was spent with Pauley talking about her upcoming interview with Michael Fay, the American teen-ager who was caned in Singapore, as if it were the scoop of the century. (It will air in two weeks.) When one critic asked if this expansion of "Dateline" will now make Pauley the most visible news presence on NBC, Shapiro said, "You bet."

Pauley says: "I think how I approach this merger is not in the sense that I now have dominion over a vast expanse on prime-time territory.

"In fact, with my experience of two hours of television a day on 'Today,' it was quite clear that that was ensemble television.

"Stone and I will probably be prominent carrying the flag. I think it will give Stone and I, and Tom and Katie, and Maria [Shriver] and Bryant [Gumbel] and whomever else is involved more clout in being competitive and getting major stories. . . . But I think that it's an illusion to think that we are prominent and we're doing it all."

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