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Newsmagazine Glut Catches Up to Networks

Television * The programs may have hit 'saturation' level as ratings for several plunge and new dramas come on strong.

October 06, 1999|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The major networks have repeatedly used newsmagazines in recent years to put out fires and plug gaps in their prime-time lineups. Two weeks into the 1999-2000 TV season, some are wondering if they have gone to that particular well too often.

Even with ratings for some new dramas cooling a bit last week, dramatic programs appear to be enjoying something of a resurgence this fall--in certain time slots at the apparent expense of newsmagazines.

Several news programs are down sharply in viewership compared to the opening weeks of last season, based on data from Nielsen Media Research. The Tuesday edition of "Dateline NBC," for example, is off 30% year to year, and Friday's "20/20" and "60 Minutes" have fallen 14% and 6%, respectively.

Hollywood-based production executives welcome this trend, having watched newsmagazines fill shelf space once allocated to dramatic fare. ABC, CBS and NBC schedule a dozen hours of news in prime time, a number that swelled at times to as many as 16 hours during the summer.

"There's a saturation point, and I think we've reached it," said one studio executive.

Even so, the volume of news programs isn't likely to diminish, primarily for economic reasons. Newsmagazines represent solid counter-programming that is less expensive to produce than fictional series and can be delivered year-round, avoiding the steep rating declines the networks experience with reruns. NBC also uses its news to feed its cable channels, MSNBC and CNBC.

"The networks see value in shows that they own and control, which can be [repeated] on their cable networks, whose costs will not skyrocket after year seven," said "Dateline" executive producer Neal Shapiro, referring to the huge price tag affixed to such dramas as "ER" and "The X-Files" as they move into their later seasons.

Shapiro maintained that there is no backlash against the proliferation of newsmagazines, suggesting that people make viewing decisions based on what's available in a given time slot. In that scenario, viewers might leave newsmagazines temporarily to check out new dramas but will quickly return if those programs don't satisfy them.

"You feel like you can sample a show for a couple of weeks, and if you don't like it, it's easy to get back into newsmagazines," Shapiro said.

Clearly, TV viewers are taking new dramas out for a test drive, though some appear hesitant to buy. ABC's "Once and Again" and "Snoops" and NBC's "The West Wing"--which all opened well--saw more than a sixth of those who viewed their first outings not show up the second week.

Still, "West Wing" would be considered a success if ratings settle near last Wednesday's level, and having the White House drama at 9 p.m. appears to be benefiting "Law & Order," the long-running program that follows it. In similar fashion, "Snoops"--the latest series from producer David E. Kelley--lost ground Sunday compared to its premiere but performed well with the younger audience ABC hopes to attract.

CBS in particular appears to be enjoying popularity with dramas that primarily target women: "Family Law," which has thrived at 10 p.m. Mondays playing opposite "Monday Night Football" in much of the country; and "Judging Amy," starring Amy Brenneman, which took a step toward establishing its hit credentials last Tuesday with a 16% ratings surge over its audience of the week before.

CBS Television President Leslie Moonves acknowledged that connecting with women has fueled the encouraging results for both shows.

"Whatever men you get are gravy," he said. "Hopefully, you have enough male appeal so if men aren't watching football or news, there's something for them."

Additional dramas showing promise include "Now and Again," which has substantially improved CBS' ratings in its Friday time period; "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," perhaps capitalizing in part on the absence of fresh "Ally McBeal" episodes; and NBC's "Third Watch," which has stolen some of "Touched by an Angel's" thunder at 8 p.m. Sundays.

"The Big Three [networks] each have something to cheer about in terms of the dramas," Moonves noted.

By contrast, few new sitcoms have caught on immediately, with NBC's "The Mike O'Malley Show" failing to escape September before the cancellation guillotine fell.

Despite the powerhouse return of "ER," CBS edged NBC to finish first for the week in total viewing; however, NBC remains on top in terms of the 18 to 49 demographic sought by advertisers, which most directly translate into profitability.

Overall, prime-time viewing of the four major networks was down 8% compared to the corresponding week in 1998, though Fox--which has gotten off to a slow start--accounts for much of that decline.

Though some patterns are emerging, still to be determined is how results will shake out on Tuesday nights--prime time's most competitive battleground.

Programs shining last Tuesday included "JAG," "Dharma & Greg" (which rebounded from premiere week to top NBC's "Will & Grace") and Fox's "That '70s Show." The nostalgic comedy not only delivered 4 million viewers more than its lead-in "Ally"--a half-hour version of "Ally McBeal" that opened to unimpressive tune-in--but it also won its time period among all viewers under 50, looking way cooler ratings-wise than ABC's competing sitcom "It's like, you know . . . "

"Party of Five" and the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" spinoff "Angel" further crowded the playing field Tuesday, and this week's barrage of new series continues with

the introduction of WB's "Roswell," ABC's "Wasteland," CBS' "Love & Money," and Fox's "Harsh Realm." By week's end, the six broadcast networks will have rolled out 31 new prime-time programs.

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