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The Information Explosion



From morning till evening, from brief updates to breaking stories, the hottest areas of television programming these days are the news shows

The number one television show in America is not Dallas or M*A*S*H. It is 60 Minutes, the hour-long news magazine program. The show that has finally begun eating into Johnny Carson's Tonight Show ratings is not Fridays, late movies, or reruns of The Love Boat. It is ABC News Nightline, a half-hour news series. And the show that s making network-owned WNBC-TV in New York City competitive with its two network-owned rivals in early evening, WCBS and WABC, is Live at Five, a news-and-talk show.

The big news in television these days is news. In the early morning and the late evening, from local and network stations to the ever-growing cable field, news proramming is beginning to dominate the airwaves as it never has before. "We're in he middle of a news explosion in this country," notes one industry observer. And although there are many reasons for that, the main one is economics.


The Sense of the Dollars and Cents

For instance, 60 Minutes charges $385,000 for a one-minute commercial .pot; it sells six such spots per show. According to a March 21, 1982, article by Tony Schwartz in The New York Times, the series costs between $300,000 and $400,000 an hour to produce. Even allowing for inflation, that leaves it a tidy profit in 1982 – it earns CBS more than $1.5 million in revenues each week, Schwartz reports – especially when one considers that a highly rated entertainment program like Dallas or Lou Grant could cost almost twice as much to produce.

Those high ad rates are the result of high ratings, and the reasons for such ratings are as varied as the news programs of which they are barometers.

The time slot of 60 Minutes, for example has made a difference for it. When the series debuted in September 1968 as a biweekly program on Tuesdays at 10 P.M., it went nowhere. Ratings improved when it was moved to Sundays. "We benefited from the football games that preceded us," notes Aristides X.Maravel, a spokesman for the show. "People just left their sets on. "

In addition, the competition on Sundays was weak. The Federal Communications Commission had earlier ruled that Sundays from 7 to 8 P.M. were to be used for family-oriented or public affairs programming, so NBC and ABC both aired children's fare.

Therefore, 60 Minutes could grab a relatively large adult audience and hold it by featuring an intriguing mixture of 15-minute news pieces, ranging from the investigative to the humorous, in settings all the way from New York to Afghanistan. "They're going places people never heard of and coming up with great little stories," says Maravel.

Other series tried similar techniques. ABC’s 20/20, in a regular berth against weak competition, was moderately successful. NBC's string of 60 Minutes-like programs was not. (These included First Tuesday, which ran monthly for two hours from 1969 to 1971 and for an hour from 1972 to 1973; Chronolog, on monthly from 1971 to 1972; Weekend, which took over, also monthly, from 1975 to 1979; Prime Time Sunday, on weekly from June to November 1979, in 1980 becoming Prime Time Saturday; and NBC Magazine, which debuted in 1980 and is still running once a week.)


Programming Personalities

Although time period and content are important, so are patience (both 60 Minutes and 20120 took time to build up their audiences) and personality. Many attribute the failure of Prime Time Sunday to anchorman Tom Snyder's controversial image, which turned off a number of viewers. Similarly, 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt attributes his series's success to the coanchors, currently Mike Wallace, Harry Reasoner, Morley Safer, and Ed Bradley, the continuing characters in the 60 Minutes story.

"People tune in to see what Mike, Harry, Morley, and Ed are up to this week," explains Maravel. "It's a personalized journalism where you have the same four correspondents each week."

Personalized journalism has long been the staple of the morning news programs, ever since Today premiered on NBC in January 1952. Unlike 60 Minutes, both Today and its main competition, ABC's Good Morning America, intersperse news stories with consumer tips, weather reports, and such "soft" news features as celebrity interviews. The format was originally designed so that early-morning viewers could prepare for work or school without having to watch what was on the set-or even stay tuned for the whole program (hence, its repetition of the news headlines four times in its two-hour period). The one link between these diverse elements has been the anchor, and his personality has always been a big drawing card. When Today began, the host was Dave Garroway; his most popular cohost was a chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs.

Today was a success, and neither ABC nor CBS seriously challenged it until the late seventies; then ABC introduced Good Morning America, which featured former actor David Hartman as host, thereby blurring the lines between news and entertainment personalities even further. Hartman operates not at a news desk as the Today anchors do, but from a living room set (which a New York Times critic called "an impractical designer's idea of gracious country living"). GMA uses many of the same techniques as Today, but it often stresses entertainment and Hartman's personality over news. "It's a recipe," notes one observer. "A teaspoon of stardom, a teaspoon of news, a pinch of controversy, but no continuity." Nonetheless, GMA picked up viewers until, by the 1980s, it was frequently beating Today in the early-morning ratings.


Morning Becomes Electric

CBS initially tried a different approach. After its own imitation of Today, The Morning Show, failed in the 1950s, the network scheduled a conventional half-hour news program, which was expanded to an hour in 1969. Morning, as it was finally called, never competed successfully with its rivals, however, because it never ran beyond eight o'clock. (The 8 to 9 A.M. period was for years occupied by a favorite with parents' groups and the FCC, the well-respected children's show Captain Kangaroo.) Last year the show was expanded to 90 minutes, from 7:30 to 9 A.M.; in March of this year, the program was renamed the CBS Morning News and expanded to two hours, from 7 to 9 A.M., with a new, youthful coanchor (Bill Kurtis, who was the anchor for WBBN-TV in Chicago) joining Diane Sawyer, a new, former Good Morning America producer (George Merlis), and more of an emphasis on entertainment. This apparent shift is one more indication that personality is frequently more important than content in television news.             

"There was a day," noted Fred Friendly, CBS news president from 1964 to 1966, in a December 1981 New York Times article, "when the conscience of CBS insisted that quality and class and seriousness came before ratings. That era is ending. The engine that rubs it all now is ratings. You can't establish a tradition and a tone for a broadcast if you play musical chairs with the people on it every time the ratings go up or down. It builds havoc and furtiveness into the system. "

Local news stations had long ago shown that "happy talk" – banter among members of news teams – was good for the ratings. Many local stations, in fact, were finding Today-type interview programs very profitable, especially with the cost of syndicated programming rising. Stations in New York, Denver, Boston, Albany, and St. Louis, among others, have expanded their news from a half hour to one or two hours, usually breaking up the news reports with interviews and consumer features. KNBC, the NBC-owned-and-operated station in Los Angeles, which experimented with a two-hour news show as early as 1969, found it so successful that it now runs news almost-continuously from early afternoon through early evening.



Dealing in Depth

At the opposite end of the spectrum is ABC News Nightline, an 11:30-to-12-p.M. news series that stresses content over anchor Ted Koppel's personality. Focusing on one subject per night, Nightline features background reports and live interviews with experts and participants in a news story. The format was borrowed from the Public Broadcasting System's successful MacNeil-Lehrer Report, on nightly at 7:30 P.M.; the program itself evolved out of a series of 11:30 P.M. news specials, broadcast by ABC during the Iranian crisis, that did surprisingly well against NBC's longtime ratings champ, Johnny Carson.

The 11:30 spot was frequently used by the networks to broadcast news specials, but no one had ever tried to program a continuing news series in that period. Explains one observer: "Nobody thought Sunday afternoon was an important time until the NFL was invented. A dead time is a dead time only until you put on something that interests people. "

With Nightline, ABC had nothing to lose. Every entertainment show it had scheduled against Carson had died, Yet Nightline didn’t; during its first three months it earned a Nielsen rating of8.4 to Carson's 8.6 (during prime time, one rating point is worth well over $60 million to a network).

Koppel's no-nonsense personality certainly had something to do with the ratings, but, as Robert MacNeil observed of his own show in a recent TV Guide article, another reason might be that "a program that tries hard to give many sides of an issue ... reaps an extraordinary harvest of public gratitude .... We constantly find people relieved that we do not preach to them, that we don't tell them what to think. We make each viewer his own pundit ... looking over our shoulders as we interview leading 'sources.', ... We don't wrap it up in a tidy package. We let the viewer do that. "

Whatever the reason, by the fourth quarter of 1981, ABC was charging record ad rates for a late-night, non-entertainment series: $30,000 per 30-second commercial, which compares favorably with the Tonight Show's rate of $35,000 per 30-second commercial.

"Ten years ago when inflation was low and gasoline cheap, you could program more entertainment," noted Bill Lord, the ABC News Nightline executive producer when the series began. "But that kind of program is dying on the vine because people want more information in order to cope with their increasingly complicated lives. Besides, a lot happens between 7:30 and 11:30."

The success of Nightline led CBS to announce its own late-night news-and-information service in March 1982. Slated to begin in September, the three-hour, Monday-to-Friday program will run from 2 A.M. to 5 A,M., combining breaking news stories with interviews and seven- to eight-minute feature stories, “In the early morning hours,” explains Van Gordon Sauter, CBS News president. “Europe is just coming alive, and we’ll have time for a lot of material from abroad and wouldn’t normally find its way onto our morning news.”


The Cable Connection

In June 1980, Ted Turner, an Atlanta business man launched the Cable News Network (CNN). Using satellite communications and cable television systems, CNN signed on a number of familiar, former network reporters, such as CBSs Daniel Schorr, ABC's Bernard Shaw, and NBC's Mary Alice Williams, to combine the soft-news approach of Today with the feature aspects of 60 Minutes and the analyses of Nightline. In addition, it often live reports of breaking stories (CNN was the first with pictures from Rome after the shooting of the pope because it has daily satellite transmission (from around the world.) By April 1982 CNN was reaching more than 1.5 million households over more than 2,000 cable television systems, and Turner expects to break even by the second quarter of 1982.

Cable News Network has been so successful that last August, ABC and Group W (Westinghouse) announced plans for their own 24-hour cable news service, Satellite News Channel, to begin operation on June 21, 1982. To be carried by 24-hour regional affiliates, the service will begin a "newswheel" that repeats and updates stories every 18 minutes. Not to be outdone, Turner responded with a similar channel, CNN-2, which he got into operation on New Year’s Eve, 1981.  ABC-Group W promptly announced a commitment to a second around-the-clock news service, Satellite News Channel to begin broadcasting sometime in the fall of 1982, which will feature in-depth news reports.

"We treatour services as just that – a service,” says a spokesman for Satellite News, Daniel Ruth. "It’s akin to walking into a darkened room. You want light. You flip on the light, you do whatever it is you have to do in the room, and when you’re done, you leave and turn the light off. The same applies here. When you want news you’ll flip us on. You’ll get your news for as long as you want to watch it, and when you don’t want the news anymore, you turn it off. The service is not designed to compete with other programming.


A Need for News

All these news programs succeed tosome degree because of their personalities, time slots, and content. But perhaps, most imoportantly. they succeed because of the more complicated society in which the viewers live.

"With more working women," says SNC's Ruth, "with changes in the traditionalmale-female roles, with a more highly educated consumer in the marketplace, you have a situation where people need information more often. Most people want to find out what’s going on. There’s a lot of news going on twenty-four hours a day.”