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Commentary : Networks are on the Verge of a Prime-Time News Leap...But Why?


It used to be they'd say "Smile, you're on 'Candid Camera.' " Now it's "Uh-oh, you're on '60 Minutes.' " Or "20/20." Or "48 Hours." Or "Street Stories." Or "PrimeTime Live."

Wait, there's more. On March 31, NBC, which flopped with "Real Life With Jane Pauley" and "Expose," will try again with "Dateline NBC." That's NBC's 18th newsmagazine effort since 1969 and its only one now in the works.

Not so its rivals.

ABC News says it likely will go head-to-head against CBS' top-rated "60 Minutes" with a new show this summer, and may try a fourth series next winter. CBS also is said to be considering a fourth, but won't talk about it.

All this could mean that within two years, the networks' current five hourlong news series in prime time could expand to nine--or more than 13.6% of their combined 66 hours of evening programs.

Which is a whole bunch of news. Why so much?

"The appetite for news and information is increasing," says NBC News Executive Vice President Don Browne. "I think the mood of the country is more serious, and people are in a mood to be more informed."

There is another key factor often noted by industry analysts: Money. News is cheaper than make-believe.

A news show can run half the $1 million or more cost per episode of an hour drama series, even with correspondents or co-anchors who, like the lesser entertainment stars, must make do on only $1 million or so a year.

And the networks don't have to pay huge license fees to producers, as they do for most entertainment series. The networks own the news shows.

The increase in prime-time news is not a recent phenomenon, notes ABC Vice President Joanna Bistany.

It's been steadily growing for years, led by "60 Minutes," now in its 24th season, and ABC's strong "20/20," est. 1978, a pair of pioneers that began shakily and now are thriving.

Network news divisions always have pushed for "more, more, more," she said. Networks now "understand the value of newsmagazines ... they always start slowly," but those that survive steadily build an audience, she said.

Indeed they have, and the growth this year has been impressive, said Rob Frydlewicz, a senior research analyst at Madison Avenue's N.W. Ayer Inc.

He ticks the numbers off: ABC's "20/20," up 11% in ratings over last year, with the network's "PrimeTime Live" up 20%.

At CBS, "60 Minutes" leads the Nielsen pack, "48 Hours" is up 40% over the previous year, and "Street Stories," begun this year, is doing 30% better than the show it replaced, "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill," Frydlewicz says.

Reality shows occupy a large chunk of prime time. There are 11 of them on the air now--four each on Fox and ABC, two on CBS, and one on NBC. The toll will rise to 13 in April when Fox's new "Code 3" and "Sightings" arrive. And there could be 14 if NBC's new 'I Witness Video" specials--produced by NBC News but paid for by NBC Entertainment--gets a series OK.

And even more, according to ABC Entertainment President Robert A. Iger.

He recently said, "I think it is likely that we'll see a strip news program"--running Mondays through Fridays--in prime time sometime in the very near future ... maybe the next two or three years."

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