More News Is Good News...Maybe

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The bears may be rumbling down on Wall Street, but when it comes to the world of television news magazines, the market is definitely bullish. Just when you thought the airwaves could take no more 20/20s, Nightlines, and Inside Editions, more is what we're getting. In September, Dateline NBC added a fifth night to its fall line-up. And soon, the granddaddy of them all, 60 Minutes, will extend its brand by creating a new show, dubbed "60 Minutes II," set to air in January. This is in addition to the 27 other time slots on broadcast and cable where viewers can check out the rest of the newsmag pack.

Granted, most of those tuning in are not the young, sexy types that network executives usually hunger for. The largest demographic watching TV news magazines at any given time is women 50 and over. And because these shows are cheap to produce, the execs can deliver this demographic to advertisers at cut-rate prices.

But are there enough golden girls to justify more shows? "There will be a shakeout. There is a point of diminishing returns," says Alan Wurtzel, senior vice president of media development, brand management and research for ABC.

Nicholas Schiavone, senior vice president of television network research for NBC, believes the market will eventually cast its vote: "There'll be too many news magazines when people stop watching them."

For the moment, at least, the market doesn't seem due for a correction. CBS's 48 Hours finished eighth in the Nielsen ratings one August week-a week in which six of the top ten shows were news magazines. And this is far from just a summertime phenomenon. For the entire 1997-98 television season, nine out of 13 network magazine shows finished in Nielsen's top 50.

Buying top-raters at bargain basement prices is nothing to sneeze at. "Within the scope of things, it's relatively inexpensive to do a Dateline," says Tom Watson, vice president and director of audience research at Western International Media in Los Angeles. "Sure, there are production costs, but the costs of going out and shooting a 60-minute action/adventure like NYPD Blue is astronomical in comparison."

For one thing, news magazines don't require snazzy special effects, or high-priced George Clooneys, or licensing fees to be paid to the studios. It costs roughly half a million dollars to produce one episode of a news magazine, says Wurtzel, and twice that to produce a drama. That, plus the sheer number of people watching, creates a true win-win scenario.

"The networks are struggling to maintain their economic integrity at a time when they must compete with 40 or more cable channels, video, the Internet, and all kinds of other alternatives," Watson says. "To be able to plunk down news in the middle of prime time and pay only a fraction of what they would pay for slick Hollywood entertainment is irresistible."

High ratings, low prices It's also a boon for Madison Avenue. In 1997, advertisers spent a total of $791 million on news magazines, up 12 percent from 1996 and 20 percent from 1995, according to Competitive Media Reporting in New York City. "Advertisers like these shows because they are fairly highly rated, and they're among the lowest-priced programs in prime time," says Audrey Steele, director of strategic resources for Zenith Media, a New York City-based media buyer co-owned by Saatchi & Saatchi and Bates USA. In May, for example, a 30-second spot on Tuesday's Dateline NBC sold for $134,000, she says. The same ad on the lower-rated Mad About You went for $218,000. Advertisers on NBC's Thursday night hit, ER, shelled out a whopping $567,000 for half a minute of air time.

Outside of the core demographic of women 50 and older, news magazine audiences skew a bit this way and a bit that, depending upon the show. Some are clearly hitting people with a lot of cash to burn. "60 Minutes skews male, and to a higher socioeconomic sector. If you're an investment company or luxury car company, you're going to advertise on 60 Minutes," says David Poltrack, executive vice president for planning and research at CBS.

Advertisers agree. "If there are ten magazine shows on each week, nine of them will be in the top 50 in terms of people with $100,000 or more in household income," says Dan Haughton, first vice president and senior director of marketing services for Merrill Lynch. "You can't say that for any other type of entertainment on television." Merrill Lynch, which targets consumers who have $100,000 or more in investable assets, was one of the ten biggest advertisers on 20/20 and 60 Minutes in 1997.

Dateline NBC, on the other hand, attracts significantly more 18-to-34-year-olds than do its competitors, and with that, of course, different types of products are advertised. "With a show like Dateline, cosmetic and packaged goods companies have more of an interest," says Poltrack.

Content parity But the demographic differences, say Steele and other experts, have more to do with the networks' overall audience demographics than with the content of the individual shows. "NBC in general attracts a younger audience than the others," Steele says.

In fact, when it comes to content, viewers would be hard-pressed to find much difference from one magazine show to the next. Andrew Tyndall, publisher of the TV-industry newsletter "Tyndall Weekly," says all of the shows cover the same five topics: Crime, sex and family, health, consumer issues, and show business. "The only one doing a lot of political coverage is 60 Minutes," Tyndall says. And when it comes to delivery, all the shows use the same formula: trusted, veteran anchors and correspondents teamed up to present real stories about everyday issues.

Programmers, however, maintain that the differences between the shows are important. "There is always enough news to go around," says Schiavone, "but how can you help people consume and digest it? Style."

And style might be something that CBS should be worrying about when it rolls out "60 Minutes II." As the acknowledged progenitor of all news magazines-and the most respected and most watched-60 Minutes execs pondered whether adding another night would bring the show down to the level of the pack. "Certainly there was some degree of concern about brand extension of 60 Minutes and it will be done very carefully," claims Poltrack. "The second 60 Minutes will hopefully be as distinct from other news magazines as the original is. It's not the same correspondents doing three more stories. The goal is to be able to earn the viewers' recognition that this is a reputable extension of the 60 Minutes brand, but to bring in something new."

But not too new. Last year, CBS's Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel attempted a different strategy-with disastrous results. "They tried to take a star anchor and make the show personality-driven rather than story-driven," Tyndall says. "It was an ill-conceived decision." Public Eye finished 84th in the Nielsen ratings last year and has been shelved for the fall season, though a network spokesperson says it may return in the future.

If there's a hole in the schedule, CBS could bring Gumbel back rather than gamble on a drama or a couple of sitcoms that are more than likely to fail. Nowadays, most networks faced with a similar decision find it hard to say no to a magazine show. "The great thing about TV news magazines is that they're a least-objectionable program choice. It's the Ed Sullivan theory of programming-if you don't like the next five-minute segment, change the channel," says Wurtzel. "Sure, the networks are trying to get younger viewers," adds Watson. "But if it comes down to a choice between a news magazine and a detective show that costs ten times more and might not attract any viewers at all, which would you produce?"

Talent and interest may dry up Still, Watson worries that the explosion of news magazines may be too much of a good thing. "I'm not quite sure how many more of these shows we can have without them getting repetitive," he says.

Though Poltrack and Schiavone believe there's still room for the different perspective each show delivers to its viewers, at least one network head believes that the saturation point is approaching-again: "In the early '90s there were 12 to 14 news magazines on TV," says Wurtzel. "And there was the inevitable shakeout. Now the same thing is beginning again. There is a point when the talent pool is used up-there aren't that many people skilled at doing these shows." Stay tuned.

Judging by figures from the United States Census Bureau, that Thanksgiving standard becomes a little less relevant with each passing year-superseded in many kids' hearts, no doubt, by the charming holiday ditty "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."

Over the river and through the woods Try "just past the dry cleaners and through the lobby." In 1990, nearly three times as many elderly people lived within metropolitan areas as lived outside them. And even in Pittsburgh, which boasts three rivers, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything within the city limits that might be called "woods." (That is, unless the PGA stops by with Tiger in tow.)

To Grandmother's house we go! Fewer kids are making that trip these days, as the past three decades have seen a surge in grandparent-maintained households. In 1970, 3.2 percent of American children (2.2 million) lived in a household headed by a grandparent. By 1997, this number had risen to 5.5 percent (3.9 million kids)-a 76 percent increase. A troubling thought: With all these grandparents having to act as responsible guardians, who's going to shower these kids with candy bars, dangerous toys, and ugly sweaters?

But even children in grandparent-maintained households can get out of the house on Thanksgiving Day. One possible effect of increased life expectancy is that more people will be acquainted not just with their grandparents, but their great-grandparents as well. For instance, between 1960 and 1994, the "oldest old" (defined by the Census Bureau as those 85 and older) increased by 274 percent (as opposed to 100 percent for those 65 and older and 45 percent for the total population). So why not pack the whole clan-Mom, Dad, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, grandmas, and grandpas-into the family Explorer and drop in on Great-grandmother? Surely she won't mind cooking for 30-hey, it's Thanksgiving! (Why not Great-grandfather, you ask? Only one in five centenarians is a man, that's why.)

The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh Yeah, sure.

Through the white and drifted snow, O! Of the eight states that experienced the greatest percentage increase in elderly population during the '80s, only one immediately brings to mind fields of white and drifted snow: Alaska. The remaining states-Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, Hawaii and South Carolina-are more likely to inspire images of Good Samaritan stickers on motor homes.

So what's the story with Alaska? Is the early-bird special at the Anchorage Houlihan's so tempting that it draws hordes of seniors every year? Well, no. Alaska might have undergone a 91 percent increase in its over-65 population, but it still has the fewest elderly among the United States. It only took an additional 10,548 people over a ten-year span to produce that rise. (During the same time, California ran up almost 70 times more elderly, but the result was only a 29 percent increase.) Alaska's percentage increase may be attributable to youth in flight rather than its appeal to the aged.

Now Grandmother's face I spy. To be more accurate, you might want to try "Only Grandmother's face I spy." You'll be seeing a lot more of those Mrs. Doubtfire faces between the years 2010 and 2030, as the baby boom generation moves into AARP-land, more than doubling the annual growth rate for the elderly between 1990 and 2010. (So long, Simpsons; hello, Ex-Lax Files.)

But since men generally have higher death rates than women, spying Grandmother's face is going to be easier than spotting Grandpa's. Sorry, Gramps.

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