'Dateline' will try '60 Minutes' hour Newsmagazines: The NBC current affairs program, already airing three nights a week, will add Sundays at 7 p.m.

January 17, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

LOS ANGELES -- "Dateline NBC," the ever-growing newsmagazine with Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips, is going to expand again -- placing it in head-to-head competition with CBS' "60 Minutes," the oldest and most successful newsmagazine in network history.

Starting March 17, "Dateline" will air at 7 p.m. Sundays, in addition to 10 p.m. Tuesdays and 9 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays, Andrew Lack, president of NBC News, announced yesterday.

With "Dateline" riding the tide of a 33 percent increase in viewership compared with last year, while "60 Minutes" is down 20 percent, much is going to be made of the impending ratings battle.

"There are two ways to examine this," Lack said. "One is from the ratings perspective."

He has no illusions in this regard: "They ['60 Minutes'] are going to win that war. In fact, I think 'Dateline' will probably finish third." But, he said, NBC management believes "Dateline" can actually help the schedule because it will lose by less than any entertainment program they put up against CBS.

"From a programming standpoint, this move gives 'Dateline' another tremendous opportunity to extend its journalistic reach across the course of a week," Lack said. "It allows us to really roll through the breaking stories with the kind of muscle in the marketplace that no other news show has."

But there's a third reason for "Dateline's" expansion to Sundays that Lack mainly ignored yesterday. It involves NBC's using news programs to make money.

This is the primary reason the newsmagazine keeps expanding.

To fill the hour from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays with a series like "Seaquest" or two sitcoms, as it had in the past, cost NBC as much as $2 million a week.

The average cost of an hour-long network newsmagazine is about $750,000.

In the case of "Dateline," the cost per hour will be even less -- perhaps as low as $500,000, according to some estimates, because one "Dateline" staff is doing four shows.

The rule of thumb is that it takes about 90 staffers to put out an hour-long prime-time network newsmagazine each week. "Dateline" has about 210 staffers putting out three hours, Lack says.

Executive producer Neal Shapiro says he expects the staff to grow to 250 or so in coming months, but that will still leave "Dateline" about 100 staffers under the industry norm.

"There will be some efficiencies . . . some economies of scale involved in expansion," Lack acknowledged.

The model of newsmagazines finishing third in ratings but still making money was introduced in 1987 at CBS, with "48 Hours" going against "The Cosby Show" on NBC.

Andrew Heyward, named president of CBS News this month, was the executive producer at "48 Hours" who showed how lucrative losing can be. Lack, who was with CBS News at the time, has taken the concept and made it even more efficient at NBC News.

This will be the third expansion of "Dateline," which debuted as a weekly program in March 1992.

One of the greatest savings is in big-ticket anchor talent. Instead of needing a Diane Sawyer and Sam Donaldson for one magazine and a Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs for another, like ABC News, all four "Datelines" will be co-anchored by Phillips and Pauley -- neither of whom is in the upper echelon of anchor salaries.

Phillips and Pauley joked about asking for raises during yesterday's press conference, but both said they didn't see much difference between anchoring four hours instead of three.

"At first, I thought going from one to three hours was going to be next to impossible," Phillips said. "But one of the beauties of 'Dateline' is that the format is flexible enough that we don't both always have to be in New York to anchor the show. . . . So I don't think it will make much difference."

As for the pressure and publicity expected to surround them once the battle with "60 Minutes" starts, Phillips added, "This is not a make-it-or-break-it situation. We're already successful on three nights, so, if we don't make it Sundays, so what? In that regard, there is no pressure."

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