The point was so important that Diane Sawyer was compelled to make it twice during a “Primetime” episode on battling stepfamilies.
“You want reality TV?” she asked. “Tonight, you get it. Starting now.” The appeal couldn’t be any more plain, or plaintive. Broadcast network newsmagazines are at a low ebb -- with likely even fewer hours on the air next season -- and the popularity of reality television is chiefly to blame.The struggle at newsmagazines to compete with this threat seems ultimately what’s behind some stories that drew unwanted attention during the past month. “Dateline NBC” raised ethical questions by paying an outside organization to set up a sting operation for pedophiles. Its producers also angered NASCAR officials by trying to send Muslim-looking men to an auto race to illustrate a story about increased anti-Muslim sentiments.Sawyer’s April 21 “Primetime” featured a stepfamily so abusive it seemed like “Supernanny” spun out of control, with tape of a father punching his teenage daughter. ABC was criticized for not alerting authorities where the family lives in upstate New York about the potentially dangerous behavior.Newsmagazines have “morphed into something that is farther away from news and much closer to entertainment,” said Joe Foote, acting dean of the University of Oklahoma’s journalism school. “They’re a long way from their roots.”They’re also a long way from their peak. “60 Minutes” is the only newsmagazine to routinely draw more than 10 million viewers a week; four separate newsmagazine hours accomplished that just five years ago.“Dateline NBC,” on for five hours a week in the late 1990s, will lose its Sunday edition during football season next fall. Its only other regularly scheduled episode was moved a few months ago to Saturday, considered broadcast television’s dead zone.There’s a very real chance that either “Primetime” or “20/20” won’t be included when ABC announces its fall schedule in two weeks. What may save them is ABC’s need to fill several struggling time slots.“I think the audience feels that the real-life drama that was the bread-and-butter of magazine shows was supplanted by the artificial reality of reality television,” said Susan Zirinsky, executive producer of “48 Hours Mystery” on CBS. “It’s as if the audience is sated. A&E’s `Intervention,’ `Survivor,’ `Nanny 911,’ they all have elements of humanity in a crisis point.”Newsmagazines once filled the networks’ need for relatively cheap prime-time programming to counter expensive comedies and dramas. Reality now does this, with the added advantage of having the potential to become a big hit if all the stars align.With the notion of public service all but gone, newsmagazines feel the pressure of having to compete with entertainment programming.Zirinsky’s “48 Hours Mystery,” which has bucked the trend by showing higher ratings on Saturday nights, is usually a one-hour crime drama, sort of like a real-life “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”She doesn’t even call it a newsmagazine anymore.“I consider ourselves a reality drama that has the ability to jump if news warrants,” she said.“60 Minutes” is considered the gold standard, but it’s not immune to pressure to make a show that has the oldest prime-time audience more attractive to young people. “60 Minutes” has also lost nearly 2 million viewers over the last five years, and there’s some nervousness at CBS about whether NBC’s new Sunday night football franchise will reduce that audience further in the fall.Newsmagazines still mix in some quality reporting, Foote said. These stories are almost secondary to the need for glitzy material that can be highly promoted _ like a “20/20” interview with Tom Cruise from the set of his latest movie, for instance.And the humanitarian crisis in Darfur is more likely to be seen in prime-time through Angelina Jolie’s eyes (Ann Curry’s interview last week on “Dateline NBC”) than in enterprise reporting.Just like with prime time, if an idea emerges that seems to work, networks run hard with it. “Dateline NBC” drew its highest ratings this year with its “To Catch a Predator” series, the stings that lure pedophiles online, producing cringe-worthy TV with elements of “COPS.” NBC is in the midst of airing four separate hours of this, three of them in the crucial May ratings sweeps period.“The predator hours are pretty interesting,” Zirinsky said. “Do I want 17 of them? I don’t know.”Chris Hansen, the veteran “Dateline NBC” reporter who has worked on the predator series, said there’s no doubt they make compelling television. “The challenge for us is also to make it journalistically solid,” he said.Even people within the business admit newsmagazines are in the midst of an identity crisis. Hansen said he’d like to see the hidden cameras and other technology used in the predator series applied to other stories, like the immigration debate and the price of prescription drugs.“It’s incumbent upon us to continue to do good enterprise reporting and figure out what our personality is going to be and stick with it,” he said.David Sloan, executive producer of both “Primetime” and “20/20,” was reluctant to discuss those programs’ futures. “I think there’s always good reporting to do and that’s what we aim to do every week,” he said.Oddly, the most traditional, high-end broadcast newsmagazine on the air right now -- aside from “60 Minutes” -- isn’t in prime time. It is what ABC’s “Nightline” has evolved into in the post-Ted Koppel era.Even as regular newsmagazine hours dwindle, a new niche for their staffs as a journalistic SWAT team has emerged. The staffs, particularly at “Dateline NBC,” are on call to quickly produce compelling long-form programming for prime time when a big news event warrants, like in the wake of Hurricane Katrina last year.“The advantage that a network has by maintaining a magazine show is that you are there to take on larger subjects,” Zirinsky said. “The week-in and the week-out? That’s the challenge.”