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CNN Adds Newsmagazines to the Mix

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Into a glut of television newsmagazines that seem to multiply like grasshoppers in an El Nino spring comes four more from an organization best known for live, breaking news.

CNN’s “NewsStand,” a collaboration between the Time Warner-owned cable news outlet and three of Time Warner’s print publications--Time, Fortune and Entertainment Weekly--premieres Sunday with promises of meaty journalism that matches the tone, standards and prestige of its three traditional magazine counterparts.

It’s an ambitious enterprise that surely beats additional round-table shows featuring squawking pundits speculating about President Clinton’s sex life. But with NBC, ABC and CBS serving up 10 hours a week of prime-time newsmagazines come fall, does the audience really need four more hours of this real-life stuff?

“I guess to me the question is, does the audience need more examples of good journalism?” said Jeff Greenfield, the former ABC analyst turned CNN star who will co-anchor with Bernard Shaw the Time editions of “NewsStand.”

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“ ‘Nightline’ and ’60 Minutes’ and ‘CBS Sunday Morning’ all qualify as that kind of program, and I think what you have is different news or magazine shows aimed at different kinds of audiences,” he explained. “We’re aiming at the longer-term, consistent, perhaps more thoughtful news viewer. You aren’t going to see ‘Lust and Death in the Heartland’ or ‘Killer Salad Bar’ stories that are a staple, really, of some of those other shows. Being on cable allows us to take a breath.”

“NewsStand” will air four days a week at 7 p.m., with a repeat each night at 10. “NewsStand: CNN & Time” will be seen Sundays and Mondays; “NewsStand: CNN & Fortune,” hosted by Stephen Frazier and Willow Bay, will appear Wednesdays; and “NewsStand: CNN & Entertainment Weekly,” hosted by Bay and Judd Rose, takes the Thursday slot.

Rick Kaplan, a former ABC producer who is now president of CNN-U.S., said that teaming up with familiar magazines like Time and Fortune will help viewers understand immediately what these shows are about. Most newsmagazines, he said, take a good while to establish their identity and thus catch on with viewers, which is why the networks have hit on airing the same brand name, such as “Dateline NBC,” rather than sticking to the old idea of introducing new titles with formats on different nights of the week.

Even so, Greenfield cautions that “we have to be realistic about how quickly we are going to generate an audience. It’s not like ‘Dharma & Greg’ where you see it once and say, ‘Oh, that’s a cute couple. I think I’ll watch them again next week.’ Even ’60 Minutes’ took a couple of years to really catch on. But if we have patience and word gets around, I believe that people will check in at 10 p.m. to see what we’re doing, even when there isn’t big news happening that day--just like people might check in on ‘Nightline’ to see what [Ted] Koppel is talking about.”

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On some nights, of course, the 10 p.m. telecast will put “NewsStand” in direct competition with “Dateline NBC” or “20/20" or “48 Hours.” Kaplan is unconcerned.

“I don’t look at what we do as a boxing match,” he said. “I look at it more like golf, where we’re competing only with ourselves and trying each time out to do better than we did the last round. We won’t go head to head with booking wars with Barbara [Walters] and Diane [Sawyer] and Tom Brokaw and all the rest.”

His goal is to build “NewsStand” into an every-night program, either by pairing up with additional magazines or simply by inventing a new style and topic for a particular night.

The other networks have turned to news programs in prime time in part because they don’t have enough quality entertainment programs and to help amortize the costs of their vast news departments, Kaplan said.

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“But we are only a news network, and so we’re not putting on a magazine to fill a gap in our other programming,” he continued. “We need to put them on because we want to be the first choice of viewers when they come to watch television, regardless of whether the news is hot today or not. If we are to be the kind of place to have 35 bureaus around the world--perhaps the biggest news department in the world, certainly the biggest in the U.S.--then we need to service people not just when there is big, breaking news, but all the time--24 hours a day, every day. The newsmagazine is a great and substantive way to do that.”


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