Network TV Audience Trends
2006 Annual Report
Prime Time Magazines
It was not that long ago that the prime-time news magazine was a programming and profit mainstay of each of the Big Three networks’ news divisions. These slickly produced hours, often specializing in long-form pieces on consumerism, true crime, human interest and celebrity, peppered the schedule. As PBS’s NewsHour noted, in 1999 prime-time news magazines were broadcasting “six nights out of seven and have exploded in just nine years from four hours of prime time programming per week to the currently scheduled 13.”14 Part of their appeal was that they cost much less to produce than an hour of drama or sitcoms, and added value to a news division within the network budget to boot. (On the other hand, prime-time magazine segments, generally, do not offer the same potential for re-runs that entertainment programming does.)
But with the rise of reality programming, prime-time magazines lost their edge as a source of cheaper programming that could earn a profit with a smaller audience. A reality hit could be even cheaper to produce and had the potential for a huge audience. What’s more, news magazines tend to attract an older demographic — people not falling into the prized 18-to-34 age range.
In 2005 the decline of the news magazine format continued with the death of “60 Minutes II.” Moving into 2006, only NBC’s “Dateline” continued regularly to air more than once a week.
The decline of the prime-time magazines, however, has other consequences for the news divisions, beyond shrinking the share of profit they contribute to their networks. One adverse consequence, network officials told us, was seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In the days when the magazines were seemingly ubiquitous during prime time, they afforded the networks an easy way to compete with the cable news channels, allowing for expanded hard-news coverage without having to pre-empt entertainment programming. In September 2005, the networks could cover Katrina in the morning, in the evening, and on ABC late at night, with “Nightline.” They failed to take the lead in Katrina coverage during prime time.
The effect of having fewer news magazines, however, has not been uniformly negative on the surviving programs.
Nielsen data for November 2005 showed a largely stable picture for the remaining news magazines. Despite a rocky year in 2004, the “60 Minutes” flagship edition on Sunday nights led the field with 14.9 million viewers. NBC’s signature “Dateline” program was second with 19.7 million viewers (over 2 nights) followed by ABC’s “20/20” (8.8 million), CBS’s “48 Hours Mystery” (7.4 million), “Primetime Live” (6.7 million) and “Nightline’s” (3.9 million).
Despite “Dateline’s” success, the network has other commitments. For now, “Dateline Friday” is moving to “Dateline Saturday,” and next season the thinking is that “Dateline Sunday” will be eliminated because of the network’s new NFL commitment. One possibility is that “Dateline” might move to two hours on Saturday or come back with more episodes in the spring.
Meanwhile, the ratings numbers alone may not be a safe predictor of the future. The key questions for a magazine show, network officials say, are 1) how does a magazine do in the time slot relative to what had been there or relative to the lead-ins? and 2) how committed is each network to a magazine?
In 2006, CBS appears the most committed. Its “60 Minutes” is an institution. “Dateline” may be more vulnerable. Saturday is always a risky time slot because the networks have begun using the night for rerunning prime time dramas such as “Law and Order” and “CSI,” and those reruns negate the economic advantage of a magazine. For the moment, however, insiders say, “48 Hours Mystery” (on Saturday) appears secure.
At ABC, as the prime-time schedule improves, the magazines may be vulnerable. On Thursday, for instance, “Primetime Live” was considered secure because the network thought it had limited prospects at 10 p.m. , up against ER on NBC. So an inexpensive news magazine was a good alternative. Yet that may be beginning to change. ER is aging, and the program that leads into “Primetime Live” last year saw better ratings. The network may begin to feel it can now draw more viewers with a drama at 10 p.m. rather than with a news magazine. Until now, the prospects for that—up against ER on NBC and CSI on CBS, were considered dim. If that changes, “Primetime,” say insiders, could get bumped.
At NBC, Saturday night is a difficult night for magazines. Some network officials believe that “Dateline,” which for years had been an economic engine for the network, could be in real danger.
By the end of the 2004-2005 season “60 Minutes” was the only news magazine to make the top 25 programs. That was despite the cancellation of the program’s “60 Minutes Wednesday” (also called 60 Minutes II”) and the potential backlash from that program’s airing of an ill-conceived report concerning President George W. Bush’s Air National Guard service.15
“Nightline,” over the years, was something of an outlier among evening magazines. First, it existed outside prime time. It followed local news, and while it competed against comedy programming, it maintained a seriousness that made it difficult to categorize.
In 2005, the “Nightline” program that had been on the air for a quarter-century ended and was replaced by a new one with the same name. The impact of the change remains to be seen.
In late March 2005, Ted Koppel announced that he would be leaving the program and the ABC network when his contract expired in December 2005. The resignation came amid debate at the network about the future design of the show. (The battle became an almost iconic symbol for the critical importance of network news, at least in public-relations terms, when it became known that ABC was trying to replace the program with a talk show vehicle hosted by the CBS personality David Letterman.)
According to a Washington Post article by Howard Kurtz, while one proposal had “Nightline” becoming a “younger and hipper hour-long show…without anchor Ted Koppel…an alternative approach [was] being developed by Koppel’s staff, a more traditional ‘Nightline’ [that] would expand to an hour while remaining largely a taped and edited program…”16 Disney was reportedly entertaining talk of a “sports or entertainment show that would end the quarter-century run of ‘Nightline’…”17
It would be October 2005 before ABC would (at least temporarily) secure the program’s future and announce a replacement, or rather a team of replacements, for Koppel. ABC News would field a three-anchor team: Martin Bashir (a reporter perhaps best known for his tabloid interview with Michael Jackson), the “Primetime” co-anchor and senior legal correspondent Cynthia McFadden, and “World News Tonight Sunday’s” anchor, and the senior White House correspondent, Terry Moran. The program would broadcast from Washington, and from ABC’s Times Square studios in New York, where Bashir and McFadden would be based. In addition to multiple anchors and locations, the program would break from its former approach of focusing on a single topic and instead deal with multiple topics.
Koppel’s final show took place on November 22, 2005.
Much of the talk surrounding the premiere of the “new Nightline” focused on the fact that it abandoned two of its hallmarks, the single-topic focus and its simple, unadorned packaging. When the show finally premiered (at 12:45 a.m. EST November 28 th, 2005) following Monday Night Football), viewers were greeted not by the focus they had come to expect but by what Robert Bianco of USA Today called “a half-hour version of ‘20/20.’”18
The new “Nightline,” indeed, was more similar to other programs on network TV than to what it replaced. It carried two or three pieces in a 22-minute newshole. The packaging, graphics and framing of the pieces were more hyperventilated than in the past, and several critics contended that the program’s reports did not always deliver on some of the more grandiose promotional promises. The premiere episode featured the first installment in a series called “ Iraq : Stay In or Pull Out?” The following morning, USA Today’s Bianco noted that while “…Moran's taped interview with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad was newsworthy, we'll apparently have to wait for him to address the question in the segment's title…”19 There have also been signs of some of the same cross-promotional use of the program that has come to characterize other network news programs, particularly in the morning. One early segment, for instance, was a celebrity interview with the comedian Sarah Silverman, whose boyfriend, the program mentioned, is Jimmy Kimmel. Kimmel’s show, “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” airs after Nightline.20 Still, some of the segments remained focused on major news events.
More structurally, doing more stories each night logically raises the risk that people will have less time to work on their pieces. TV critics were mostly negative. Initial responses were that this was no longer “Nightline” as it used to be but a different program with the same name, and one that was less distinct from what is available elsewhere on the dial.
But it is perhaps unfair to judge the new “Nightline” so early in its transition. It was probably predictable, after all, that the program would be dinged after such a long and serious tenure. The argument could be made that critics and media watchers expected too much out of the box, or were primed to be critical.
Early ratings indicated that “Nightline’s” audience has not fully made up its mind about the new format, either. According to Media Life magazine, “For the week ended January 15, ‘Nightline’ averaged 3.6 million viewers, its highest viewership since the triumverate of Cynthia McFadden, Martin Bashir and Terry Moran took over as hosts in late November. But that was down 8% from the comparable week last year, when Koppel averaged 3.9 million viewers.”21