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TELEVISION : Sweet Sixteen? : After misfiring with 15 other newsmagazines, NBC believes it has an attractive formula for its 'Dateline' show

March 22, 1992|MICHELE WILLENS | Michele Willens is a free-lance writer based in New York. and

NEW YORK — If things go as NBC hopes, March 31 may make a bit of history: the date that the network introduced a prime-time news magazine that succeeded.

Yes, 16 could be the lucky number.

Do the names "First Tuesday," "Chronolog" and "Monitor" ring a bell? They are just three of NBC's 15 previous efforts at a prime-time magazine over 23 years. All came with much fanfare, and all left quietly and with little impact. Now the network is hoping "Dateline NBC" will inaugurate a new list.

There are several reasons for NBC's seeming incompetence in the field of newsmagazines, including a lack of commitment from the top, a lack of need while on top and a lack of expertise in the area, amounting to what former "20/20" executive producer Av Westin calls "a virus on NBC's walls."

But NBC says it really is serious this time and has even gone outside to get help, hiring from both "20/20" and "60 Minutes."

And not a moment too soon: The newsmagazine, cheaper, fresher and owned by its network, is muscling aside the dramatic hour on prime time.

CBS has "60 Minutes," the venerable front-runner that currently is the most-watched show on television (and, incidentally, CBS' biggest moneymaker ever, rumored to earn the network up to $70 million a year); "48 Hours," now in its fourth season and running smoothly after hopping all over the schedule and finally being given a 10 p.m. time period to prove its appeal; and a "48 Hours" spinoff, "Street Stories," which has done well enough since its Jan. 9 debut to earn a spot at least through the summer.

ABC is close behind, with "20/20" averaging a solid 25% share of the audience on Friday nights and "PrimeTime Live" overcoming its shaky start and now sometimes beating off both its faltering Thursday night competitors, "L.A. Law" and "Knots Landing." And this summer, the network will premiere a new magazine, probably featuring Forrest Sawyer, to go up against "60 Minutes."

"I'm a competitive guy and it's our turn," says NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield. "It's why I'm giving this program the best possible berth from which to succeed. We're also using the entertainment division's relationships with certain people to try to hook the show some big names."

So here comes "Dateline NBC," to run in the very attractive time period of 10 p.m. Tuesday, to be hosted by the very attractive Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips (a former correspondent from "20/20"), with a roaming bunch of, yes, attractive correspondents, including Persian Gulf pinup Arthur Kent and investigative ace Brian Ross. All answering to a man who comes from a successful show at another network.

"We're betting on an all-star cast behind as well as in front of the camera," says Littlefield. "We had to go outside to do our drafting and we just haven't had that kind of force before."

The force of which Littlefield speaks is Jeff Diamond, formerly the No. 2 man at "20/20." NBC executives make much ado about his hiring and the fact that they wooed him for a year and a half (though before he accepted, Cathy Lasiewicz, now executive producer of "Street Stories" and formerly No. 2 at "48 Hours," was offered the job and turned it down).

Diamond, who has a solid reputation as an organizer and overseer, says he took the job both because of the crowded conditions at ABC and because he was finally convinced that NBC wants to make it in the magazine business.

"I had been at ABC 19 years," says Diamond, a bearded, studious type, "and was one of many executive-producers-in-waiting. So I needed a change and this was a real opportunity. But it wasn't until I felt NBC was dead serious about this magazine that I said yes."

That included garnering the 10 p.m. Tuesday slot, when adult audiences are most likely to want such fare, and, most importantly, a 52-week commitment from the network.

Jane Pauley feels the fact that Diamond and David Rummel, a producer from "60 Minutes," came over proves things might be changing at NBC. "We keep attracting outside talent," she says, "and there was a time you couldn't do that here."

Pauley's last experience with NBC was such an odd and still slightly bitter one that she is handling all the "Dateline" euphoria with understandable caution. In the summer of 1990, coming off a nationwide love affair resulting from her being shoved off the "Today" show in favor of the younger Deborah Norville, Pauley helped design, and anchored, a series called "Real Life With Jane Pauley." It was a solid success in five test outings at 10 p.m., then went off to gear up for a January, 1991, return.

The next thing Pauley and her executive producer, David Browning, knew was that they were being reduced to half an hour, paired with a tabloid-investigative show called "Expose" and scheduled at 8 p.m. Sundays opposite "Murder, She Wrote" and "America's Funniest Home Videos."

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