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6 Months After Its Debut, 'Front Page' Still Struggles : Television: Fox's first news product is fighting to establish a somewhat sassy identity along with legitimacy as news program. Dismal ratings have prompted the network to move the show from Saturdays to Tuesdays.

January 19, 1994|STEVE WEINSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's designed to lure young viewers with jazzy video effects, yet still maintain its "news first" credibility. It's supposed to provide a younger take on the world, but most of the guys who offer the show's most distinctive points of view look like your basic middle-age TV pundits ward-robed as usual in coats and ties. It airs on Fox, a brand name most associated with such tabloid-reality programs as "A Current Affair" and "America's Most Wanted," and yet the show's executive producer aspires for an image more along the lines of "60 Minutes."

So it goes in the seemingly schizophrenic world of "Front Page"--Fox's first and only news product that after half a year on the air is fighting simultaneously to establish a unique, somewhat sassy identity and legitimacy as a thoughtful news organization. It is also fighting to find an audience. So far, airing Saturdays, the show is ranked a dismal 98th out of 102 prime-time programs. In an effort to improve on that, the network is moving the series to Tuesdays at 9 p.m. beginning Feb. 1.

"I think that if we're not distinct with our style, we won't succeed," said David Corvo, executive producer of the show. "But the biggest thing is our journalism better be solid, and I really don't see those two things as being in conflict. If each piece does not have substance and clarity, you are going to lose your audience, and then it won't matter how flashy you look."

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Corvo, 43, who used to supervise news shows at CBS, said that since Fox is not a place anyone associates with news, it is essential that the show take pains to make sure viewers perceive "Front Page" as a news program. Staking that claim is critical not just in attracting the audience that likes to watch news magazines, but also in gaining access to the newsmakers who matter.

"I don't know if it's the politically correct thing to say, but yes it's tougher for us (than a new news show on the other networks) because Fox either has no news image or it's a tabloid image," Corvo said. "We're doing something altogether different than 'A Current Affair,' but still people are confused. It happens in Hollywood when we want to talk to someone, they say, 'I already did "A Current Affair" ' or 'I didn't like what they did about me.' We get the same from politicians. So in terms of even being able to get those really good stories, we have to hang that news sign out there. I suppose there are more radical versions of news programs that could be done, but I don't think we could do that with the first one."

From the start, "Front Page" has been backpedaling on some of its more radical elements. The heavy use of graphics employed at the beginning last June have been cut back. The idea of simply jumping from one self-contained piece to the next without a traditional introduction was scrapped too. Now, one or another of the show's five principal reporters introduces each piece--often by way of a stroll through the architecturally gorgeous Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles. Corvo said he even wants to hire a full-time anchor person. Nearly all of the network news magazines are built around such star anchors as Diane Sawyer or Jane Pauley who not only serve to centralize each show, but also lure viewers.

"We always thought the show would do better with an anchor, but we didn't have the right person," Corvo said. "It's an interesting search because you know that all of the best people aren't sitting on the beach waiting for a call. But we figured when we found him or her we could add them to the mix, and in the meantime we had the opportunity to get on the air and learn how to do stories."

Corvo added that some of the more avant-garde pieces--such as a recent story on rap music--have been slowed or toned down a bit. Still, he asserted that "Front Page" uses more of what he calls "off-Broadway" video techniques more common to MTV, ESPN2 or British television than any of the other network news magazines.

And that is designed to please Fox's younger audience.

"We are definitely looking to do news for the Fox audience, and I think that means being focused on an editorial content and approach that will work with younger viewers," said Andy Fessel, Fox's senior vice president, research and marketing. "Viewers expect Fox not to give them the same old stuff, and this is a way to introduce the young Fox viewers to important news and information that they wouldn't otherwise get."

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