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Money changes everything.

It was at the end of a long interview for a book about television news. Dan Rather was walking the reporter down to the lobby of the CBS News building on West 57th Street in New York City. As he was leaving, the reporter thanked the CBS anchor for his time and thoughts.

"You're welcome," Rather said. "But I'm afraid we didn't talk much about news. What we mostly talked about were pictures and money. Next time, we'll talk more about news."

Rather might not have considered it at the time of that 1987 interview, but talking about pictures, money and the relationship between the two is talking about television news. In the wake of network downsizing in the 1980s, television visuals have come to equal ratings, and ratings equal money. That's the new math and the new reality.

Acknowledgement of that connection has been missing in much of what's been written about the television news story of the year--the controversy involving "Dateline NBC" and the rigged test-crash of a General Motors pickup truck that aired last November.

Many television producers and media analysts say that if the millions of dollars in profits the networks expect newsmagazines to generate in a prime time entertainment environment are taken into account, it's easy to understand how the staged pictures made it onto "Dateline." And, with the economic pressures newsmagazines and news divisions face, more of these incidents can be expected--no matter how dire the consequences for executives, producers and reporters.

"There's enormous pressure on these TV magazines for pictures, pictures and hype," says Everette E. Dennis, executive director of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center in New York City. "Once they became profit centers for the networks, they became susceptible to all of the same pressures that the entertainment divisions always had in terms of keeping the audience and keeping the ratings up.... The pressure is growing, absolutely."

There are two kinds of financial pressures facing television newsmagazines such as "Dateline." Both are the result of the change in corporate thinking at the networks in the mid-1980s, which decreed that news divisions would no longer be allowed to lose money as they had been since television's earliest days.

One source of pressure is what Peter Herford, who worked for CBS for 26 years, calls the "culture of cost-cutting" in network news through layoffs, buyouts, bureau closings and hiring on the cheap. The other, ironically, is the result of the recent ratings success of newsmagazines such as CBS' 48 Hours" and ABC's "PrimeTime Live"--success that has forced news divisions to compete directly with prime time entertainment programming. That, coupled with comparatively low production costs, has led to what Andrew Heyward, the former executive producer of 48 Hours," calls "this astonishing boom in new TV magazines."

There are now seven prime time network newsmagazines on the air: "60 Minutes," 48 Hours" and "Street Stories" on CBS; "Primetime Live," 20/20" and "Day One" on ABC; and "Dateline" on NBC. By the start of next season, there will be at least three more: Connie Chung will host a new show to be produced by Heyward on CBS; Fox has a program scheduled under the direction of former CBS News producer David Corvo; and one will air on NBC, co-hosted by Faith Daniels and produced by Steve Friedman, who leaves NBC's "Nightly News." There may be more newsmagazines in prime time next season than there are dramas, like "Murder, She Wrote" or "L.A. Law." That's unprecedented in television history, and as large a change in television programming as the death of the western 30 years ago.

It's a trend that some believe may be self-destructive. "Even network news officials believe there's going to be a shakeout in the near future in the number of newsmagazines in prime time," says Stephen McClellan, a correspondent with Broadcasting & Cable magazine. "They believe that, though none of them will admit it. They are all forced into the competitive position of believing it won't be them [who will lose out]. It's like thinking I'll never get cancer. They believe that because the stakes are so high for those who succeed."

To understand how newsmagazines have become victims of their own commercial success, you have to start with the cost-cutting culture.

In the 1980s, the networks said they could cut costs and turn the news divisions from loss leaders into profit centers without losing anything important in the process. It was all just a matter of getting leaner and meaner.

NBC did get leaner and meaner. In fact, its news division may show its first significant profit this year. But some analysts say that in seeking profitability, the network lost its credibility.

Herford, who now heads the broadcast department at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, blames what happened at "Dateline" on Michael Gartner, the NBC president of news who submitted his resignation in March. (Gartner and other NBC News executives declined to be interviewed for this story, as did numerous executives at CBS and ABC.)

"He [Gartner] has been the great cost-cutter," Herford says. "He has made NBC News a very efficient machine--unsuccessful from an audience and public point of view, but he sure has ... cut way, way down on the cost of operation. And that seem[ed] to be his principal role."

One reason cost-cutting led to the GM debacle, Herford believes, is that for a long time the network had no one in charge of news standards. (In the wake of the scandal, NBC named David McComick, a 20-year veteran of the network, to the new position of senior producer for broadcast standards.)

"At ABC, they had a full-time person, a vice president for news standards, who had a staff, who did nothing but review every investigative piece that went on the air, every major magazine piece that went on the air. He read all the scripts, etc., etc., etc.... At ABC, that [|Dateline'] piece never would have gotten past him," Herford says.

Douglas Gomery, who teaches the economics of broadcasting at the University of Maryland, agrees. He says stories are no longer "reviewed up the line in a systematic and regular fashion--the way they are at the better newspapers."

Another effect of cost-cutting is that many experienced producers have been replaced by far less experienced journalists. Says Dennis, "Many of the people who now work on these magazine shows have relatively little experience in the business." Or, it's the kind of experience that network news divisions weren't interested in a decade ago.

Before the cost-cutting culture took hold, producers and reporters spent years in training at the better local stations before moving on to the networks. But downsizing throughout the industry--at the local as well as the network level--has meant that this traditional career path has been undermined.

"In the business, you now have newer and less experienced people working in newsrooms due to the economic realities and the economic transition that the business is going through," says David Roberts, news director of WBAL-TV, the CBS affiliate in Baltimore. "Even at the local level, the higher paying positions are evaporating. And people who have the experience are opting not to work for less and, in many cases, have moved on to do other things."

And more producers are being hired from tabloid television shows, where the only goal, in the words of Heyward, is "audience maximization."

Roberts says his station periodically holds legal seminars in an attempt to make up for the gap in experience. He hopes the seminars will "prevent [us] from getting sued and having to put apologies on the air on a regular basis, because there are some basic rules that are not adhered to more often than we all would like to admit."

One of the biggest problems, according to Roberts, is the use of inaccurate video or generic images that are not specifically related to the content. "If you watch newscasts in a lot of markets you'll see generic pictures for the sake of just having pictures," he says.

NBC found itself in a bind because of inaccurate images, just two weeks after the GM apology. During the February 24 "NBC Nightly News," Tom Brokaw apologized for inaccurate footage in a January 4 report that alleged overcutting in Idaho's Clearwater National Forest was endangering fish. The report used videotape of dead fish from another forest and identified them as being from Clearwater. It also included videotape of fish that had been stunned for testing purposes and identified them as the dead victims of overcutting.

"The desire to be compelling in a prime time way does not excuse not being accurate," says Arnold J. Kleiner, vice president and general manager of WMAR-TV, the NBC affiliate in Baltimore. Kleiner is also chairman of the news committee of a board representing NBC's 210 affiliates and was consulted by senior management at NBC throughout the GM crisis. He was among those who called for Gartner's resignation.

But while accuracy is about presenting facts, the arena of prime time network television, where the newsmagazines are now being forced to compete, is largely about presenting fiction.

"I think what's important is to recognize what we lose if we lose the distinction between news and entertainment," says Ellen Hume, a senior fellow and adjunct lecturer at Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. "The difference to me has been news is supposed to be based on facts that have been verified. That is the first critical difference."

NBC's Friedman perhaps has a more practical view. "The challenge in prime time is different. The evening news sort of plays itself I mean, 70 percent of what you do on the evening news is obvious."

Not so with the magazines. "In these magazine shows, you really have to make up most of it.... How you want to cover it as opposed to what really happened," he says. "And there is the fun, and there lies the danger. The fun is trying to come up with a different angle or a different story. The danger is, do you get pushed so far over the edge that you fall off that edge?"

The competition during prime time is different too. The entertainment programming includes, for example, a miniseries that purports to show such things as the "behind-closed-doors" story of Michael Jackson's childhood, including allegations of beatings by his father; docudramas, like the ones claiming to be the "true story" of Amy Fisher, dubbed the "Long Island Lolita" in New York tabloids; and "reality" shows such as NBC News' "I Witness Video," which in its first episode featured amateur videotape of a Texas sheriff being murdered--and ran the sequence three times in slow motion. The show, which Gartner publicly defended, is considered by some critics to be the realization of Paddy Chayefsky's nightmare vision in his film, "Network."

It is an environment lacking in traditional journalistic values. "I think they are giving ... the audience their drama fix," says ABC Entertainment President Ted Harbert, referring to ABC's "20/20" and "Primetime Live." As examples, Harbert pointed to episodes in which hidden cameras were used to film the unethical practices of an appliance repairman, and students in Denver who were smuggling guns into school. "There's no more dramatic programming I've seen in a long time," he says.

Howard Rosenberg, Pulitzer Prize-winning television critic at the Los Angeles Times, says that kind of drama is ultimately harmful to serious broadcast journalism. "Everybody is destined to be flushed into the same toilet," says Rosenberg. "This whole aura of |tabloidism' is affecting all of TV news, including TV newsmagazines. I think as the stakes get higher and higher ... and as more and more people see the attention tabloid shows like Hard Copy' get, network newsmagazines won't be immune."

Ed Turner, CNN's executive vice president, is also wary of this new dramatization of news. "My fear is that news is being moved ... away from the established tradition of an NBC White Paper' or |CBS Reports' to the entertainment schedule, which emphasizes personalities," Turner says. "The promotion appeals to the eye and emotions and not the intellect in that world. And in the process, journalists become--inadvertently perhaps--part of show business. And it's very easy in all the glitz and gee whizzes to forfeit the serious part of what we really do for a living."

In fact, the second-generation magazine shows that have enjoyed the most successful ratings--"48 Hours" and "PrimeTime Live"--are the ones that have found dramatic visual ways to express themselves. For "48 Hours," it is an in-the-eye-of-the-storm, gritty, cinema verite style. For "PrimeTime Live," it's the hidden camera used in undercover reporting. And it's what "Dateline" was after when it rigged those pictures of the GM pickup truck exploding.

As McClellan and others have pointed out, for those who get the formula right, the rewards are great. According to Broadcasting magazine, the prime time newsmagazines now on the air are expected to generate $670 million in revenues for the three networks this season. (That figure does not include ABC's "Day One," which debuted in March.) Next season, with "Day One" and the three newcomers, that figure is expected to exceed $1 billion.

The networks will get to keep much of that revenue. At $400,000 to $500,000 an hour to produce, newsmagazines generally cost less than half of what a network pays for an hour of drama or comedy, which seldom can be had for less than $1 million. And the newsmagazines get higher ratings than many entertainment shows.

All that money is being generated by news departments that used to be money losers. And the revenue made by newsmagazines this year will probably mean the difference between losing money and showing a profit for the news divisions.

The importance of "Dateline" to NBC's overall financial health, for instance, is suggested by Broadcasting magazine's estimate that the show will generate $90 million in revenue this year. The magazine costs only $400,000 to $500,000 an episode to produce. So if NBC News produced a show every week (which it doesn't, due to pre-emptions and summer follow-up stories), the total cost could be as high as $26 million--a difference of $64 million between revenue and cost of production. Even after agency commissions, advertising costs and legal fees are subtracted, the show is still expected to earn as much as $45 million in profits.

NBC News is expected to show a profit this year, estimated to be as much as $20 million. Dateline," the first prime time magazine to make money for NBC after 17 failed attempts, is clearly the difference. Yet "Dateline" doesn't even win its time period for NBC. It usually finishes in the middle of the pack of the 95 weekly prime time shows, with about 20 percent of the total audience watching.

Gomery says that kind of profit is irresistible to the networks. [NBC] didn't try it 17 times because they thought it was a stupid idea," he contends. "They could see this enormous pot of money at the end of the rainbow. '60 Minutes' is the most profitable network show on television."

Indeed, other newsmagazines are making money. This season, CBS' "60 Minutes" and 48 Hours" will generate about $200 million and $105 million, respectively. "20/20" and "PrimeTime Live" will bring in as much as $150 million and $85 million for ABC.

Beyond the immediate profit margins, there is yet another financial bonus. While the networks rent most entertainment programs, like "Roseanne" or "Seinfeld," from the production companies that make them and own the rights, they own the magazines. That means all future earnings from home video, international or library sales go to the networks as well. This can amount to millions of dollars.

With the addition of three more prime time magazines this year, competition is sure to intensify. To cope, the networks will have to dig deeper into the pool of available talent for even less experienced producers. There will be more pressure for a show to score in the ratings right away, unlike the first generation of newsmagazine shows, "60 Minutes" and "20/20," and their successors, 48 Hours" and "PrimeTime Live."

When "60 Minutes" debuted, no one cared whether it got ratings. With the debut of "20/20" in 1978, ABC just wanted a prime time presence.

In the cases of 48 Hours" and "PrimeTime Live," CBS producer Heyward says they were part of a "defensive" strategy--a relatively inexpensive way for CBS and ABC to counter-program hits like "The Cosby Show" and "Knots Landing." "|No one expects you to win against Cosby,' we were told when we were put up against him on Thursdays," Heyward recalls. "But you can come in No. 2 in the time period and carve out a niche for yourself."

Now, the more successful magazines are expected to win their time period. "Once you're expected to win," says Heyward, "it's a different kind of pressure. The pressure is to score in the ratings right away."

Because of this new ethic, former CBS producer Herford calls the NBC-GM GM affair a critical moment in the history of television news. Indeed, it's been compared to the quiz show scandals of the 50s. And, unlike other recent lapses in network judgment, a month after the apology this one still seems as if it won't go away. This may be due, in part, to the television news industry's own anger at NBC for clumsily exposing the artifice involved in producing what the networks portray as simply a "window to the world." The fear is that once the public sees how the sausage of television newsmagazine journalism is made it will lose some of its appetite for it.

But the public has a very short collective memory.

In July 1989, ABC's "World News Tonight" showed what it said were pictures of a suspected American spy handing a briefcase to a Soviet agent. The person identified as the suspected spy was, in fact, an ABC employee.

In a discussion of the "Dateline" affair in February on National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation," neither Herford, one author of this story, host Ira Glass, nor apparently any caller could remember the name of the diplomat misrepresented in ABC's staged re-creation. (He was Felix Bloch, who was never charged with any wrongdoing.)

And who remembers when ABC showed on its May 12, 1986, evening newscast what it said were pictures of the meltdown of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl? The pictures were grainy but gripping--the heart of darkness in the nuclear age, up close and personal.

Only it turned out that what ABC actually had was out-of-focus videotape of the wall of a cement factory in Trieste, Italy, which the network had purchased from a con man. To its credit, ABC immediately apologized on the air. NBC had also shown the same pictures and later apologized.

Television critic Rosenberg sees trouble down the road resulting from this collective memory loss. "The real problem is not at point of impact when you are watching the shows," he says. "The real danger is when we recall everything, thinking back three or four weeks and we can't remember whether what we saw was on CBS News, Hard Copy' or a movie about Amy Fisher."

Handling the pressure to produce hot visuals without selling out journalistically, says Heyward, is the test television newsmagazines face as the competition intensifies in the coming months.

"The challenge for the news divisions is to do work that's viable in a very aggressive programming strategy, but is at the same time journalistically worthwhile," Heyward says. "That's what separates us from the tabloid or |reality-based' shows, which are designed solely for audience maximization. Our shows have the more difficult challenge of maximizing audience, but also being worthy of bearing the proud brand name of CBS or ABC News."

The question is, which master will be served first--good journalism or commercial success? Since the GM debacle the ratings for "Dateline NBC" have gone up. Gomery is one who isn't surprised. "I'll make a prediction," he says. "In the end, I don't think it hurts [NBC]. The model is Hollywood, if you're going to try and make money. And Sam Goldwyn once said, 'All publicity is good publicity.' At least more people know about the show...

"Journalistically, it's a disaster. Everybody is up in arms about it. But surprise, surprise, it's making more money."

it's not just tv

While television has played a central role in our becoming a more visual culture, it isn't the only medium guilty of fudging photos.

On February 16, USA Today ran a front page photo of five angry looking African American men in Los Angeles posing with ammo belts, pistols and a rifle. The headline over the picture read, "Gangs put L.A. on edge."

Two days later, the paper ran a "clarification," explaining that at least three of the men had intended to turn in their guns as part of a jobs-for-guns program. When the men showed up for the picture session without their guns, the USA Today reporter gave one of them a ride in his car to retrieve his weapon. The men have threatened a libel suit, and the reporter, Richard Price, was fined, suspended and demoted. Price has threatened to sue the paper unless he is reinstated and "libelous" statements are retracted. USA Today isn't budging.

David Zurawik is the Baltimore Sun's television critic. Christina Stoehr is a former television critic for the Milwaukee Sentinel and the Detroit Free Press.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:profit motive behind news digest programming causes loss of credibility
Author:Zurawik, David; Stoehr, Christina
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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