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No Slow News Days Here

Robert Strauss is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Roberta Oster is crashing. It’s Friday afternoon and the sun is bathing New York outside her Rockefeller Center window. She should be thinking about the weekend and its pleasures, but there’s a story out in Salt Lake City, and her employer, “Dateline NBC,” wants it sooner than later. So never mind that Oster, one of “Dateline’s” producers, is already working on one story and another profile she’s proposed. Never mind the Indian summer Manhattan sun. Never mind that Utah is not exactly where she planned on spending Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. There are camera crews to find; interviews to schedule; assistant producers to help and be helped by; files to read.

“Gotta just forget about everything else,” she says breathlessly to a visitor spending a week with the “Dateline” staff. “Neal is the greatest, but there is nothing done leisurely here. It’s just not a relaxed newsmagazine.”

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Oct. 18, 1998 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 18, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Page 87 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong sport--NBC’s news division is being asked to tighten its budget in part to offset huge outlays by the network for the Olympics and professional basketball, not for football, as was incorrectly stated in last Sunday’s cover story on “Dateline NBC.”

“We probably do more crashes than any other news show,” says Neal Shapiro, “Dateline’s” executive producer, using the TV news insider’s term for the drop-everything-and-get-it-done-preferably-yesterday story.

“We’re on five nights a week now, so as things keep happening, there are stories you want to jump on.”

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When “Dateline NBC” premiered on March 31, 1992, there were only four other hours of newsmagazines on network prime-time TV, and none of them were on NBC. Now there are 11 hours, with two more scheduled to arrive in the winter, and five of them are named “Dateline NBC.”

No one has ever before produced five hours of prime-time network programming a week: not Edward R. Murrow, the deity of network news; not Steven Bochco or David Kelley or even Aaron Spelling. Even when there were 31 westerns on during the 1958-59 prime-time schedule, no one honchoed five of them. But Shapiro is now producing an original hour of “Dateline” on Sunday, on Monday, on Tuesday, on Wednesday and on Friday.

Critics have skewered “Dateline” for filling those hours with lightweight fare and near-tabloidy crime stories. While it is a charge that Shapiro and his staff take seriously, they claim that they are doing a different kind of prime-time newsmagazine, one that mirrors something like Time or Newsweek, with a panoply of stories from the serious to the offbeat. And they believe that is the future of news in prime time.

The proliferation of prime-time newsmagazines on all the networks has caused consternation and derision in some quarters, joy and admiration in others. By putting on a newsmagazine five nights a week, NBC has put itself in the cross hairs of the critics’ shotguns.

“I cannot imagine that ‘Dateline’ will have enormous ratings week after week,” says Bryce Nelson, professor of journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication. “Even when ’60 Minutes’ was on alone, it was hard to get three good magazine stories a week. If you try to do this every night, it’s going to be very hard to get stories with content.”

When network prime-time ratings started slipping precipitously in the 1990s, newsmagazines started looking better to schedule-makers. They cost less to produce than entertainment programs. With few exceptions, they had fresh programming every week, even through the summer. Rarely did they have smash ratings, but with the exception of shows like ABC’s “Day One” and the Bryant Gumbel vehicle “Private Eye,” rarely, too, were they Nielsen bombs. They even had stars, maybe none as dark and brooding as George Clooney or as sprightly as Jenna Elfman, but surely Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer and Jane Pauley and Mike Wallace were as identifiable as anyone else in prime time.

But news was to be held to a higher standard than mediocre sitcoms and women-in-jeopardy telemovies, critics said. More might well mean less, at least when it came to quality.

“I don’t think [lack of quality] is in the viewers’ minds,” Shapiro says. “In every time period we have gone into, we have done better than the preceding program. I personally don’t think there is something wrong with one more hour of ‘Dateline’ and one less hour of ‘America’s Stupidest Videos.’ We, as American people, haven’t lost anything.”

There is little that Heather Vincent is telling Shapiro this morning that doesn’t give him some sort of news rush. Vincent, “Dateline’s” senior producer in charge of bookings, holds court for the early part of the daily 9:30 a.m. meetings of the show’s senior staff.

The big news of this day is President Clinton’s meetings with Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu, the final assault on the major-league home-run record by Mark McGwire and the continued press of Hurricane Georges through the South, but Shapiro is more impressed with Vincent’s combing of the wires and newspapers for the odd or interesting.

She first talks excitedly about a congressman on the House Judiciary Committee who has tentatively allowed “Dateline” cameras to follow him through the possible impeachment hearings. Then it is on to the news of the day. There is a story about a 29-year-old man who is intending to marry his 13-year-old girlfriend in Mexico. Another is about a Fort Worth school bus security camera finding sexual goings-on. And New York local television is leading with a story about an older man with Alzheimer’s disease who has been roughed up Rodney King-like by Staten Island cops.

“That’s a story we certainly have to know more about, but I’m interested in that, too,” Shapiro says about the Staten Island story. About a dozen senior producers and news executives are scattered on couches and chairs around Shapiro’s moderately sized office. The walls are filled with posters of movies about journalism, such as “Broadcast News,” “All the President’s Men” and “Deadline U.S.A.,” as well as photos of his wife, ABC News correspondent JuJu Chang.

Shapiro is known for his quick study on story ideas. His producers don’t mess around when proposing ideas--after all, the glory comes in doing a story that gets on the air, not one that requires fits and starts. The producers agree that the Mexican story should be folded into a larger story about recent changes in the culture in Mexico that is already in the works. The other two are tentatively approved, but without the urgency of Georges, which will continue to be on the air nightly until it peters out in the southeastern U.S.

By this time, four days after she got the assignment, producer Oster is finishing up shooting her story in Utah. It is about a young survivalist couple who believe their 2-year-old son is a religious prophet, but were often starving him. Social workers sent the boy to the hospital when he weighed only 15 pounds, but his parents soon kidnapped him and went on the lam. Oster edited the story in New York on Thursday, had it screened by Shapiro and the legal staff on Friday and Saturday, and had it on the air by last Sunday night. “It was nonstop,” she says later. “It was not the kind of artfully crafted piece I like doing, but this is TV news. It’s the business. Sometimes you have to crash to do it right.” (The couple was apprehended this week; authorities acknowledged the visibility that the “Dateline” story gave the case.)

And because TV is so expensive and labor-intensive, you often have to pre-crash-test stories--make sure people will agree to appear on camera or that there are sufficient visual elements for a TV story, for example. “We do a lot of pre-production. We test what might go wrong before we even get started on a story,” says Adam Gorfain, one of the “Dateline” broadcast producers. “Hopefully, if it’s going to go bust, it will do so before it gets started. I think I’m paid as much to knock down stories as to approve them.”

“Dateline” has 20 part- or full-time correspondents and 96 producers, and these people are well-paid: The range at network newsmagazines for producers is approximately $80,000 to $120,000 a year, with correspondents often making several times more than that. But they are often termed “news nuns,” their lives consumed by regularly working 60- and 70-hour weeks.

The great bulk of “Dateline” staff is in its late 20s or 30s, having graduated from top colleges. Producer Gorfain went to Harvard and worked on the Crimson, the university’s famed newspaper, before taking a job as a receptionist at ABC. He spent four years working his way up through the ABC news ranks before coming to “Dateline” in 1993. It is a typical career path for “Dateline” producers, many of whom worked at ABC or CBS newsmagazines or, more recently, NBC’s cable offshoots CNBC or MSNBC. Shapiro, a magna cum laude graduate of Tufts University and a former broadcast producer at ABC’s “PrimeTime Live,” is only 40.

“I try to hire smart people who are curious, good writers and good team players,” Shapiro says. But he also adds, “And people who have a lot of energy. You can’t get by here without that. This is not a place for lazy people. This is a place for people who want to be excited about what they do.”

The people in Shapiro’s shop seem to like their boss. He is soft-spoken and wears a smile with comfort. He also often wears loud suspenders and tries to spend time with the troops. There are periodic ball-game trips, and each new employee gets part of a group lunch out on the town with the boss. Even sad events have united his staff, Shapiro says. Producer Bruce Hagan died in a boating accident over Labor Day weekend, and more than 100 staffers attended his funeral and started a scholarship fund for his young daughter.

“These are people who want to work together,” Shapiro says. “Going to five nights a week is certainly easier with a staff like that.”

The anchors are a bit split on the latest increase in time: Pauley enthusiastic; Stone Phillips, wary.

“My early sense is that this will be difficult,” Phillips says. “The stakes are up. Being on five nights a week is going to help us from the standpoint that we like to be the newsiest magazine. But again, you look at a Monica Lewinsky story and there are questions of proportion. I still think that magazine shows make their name and hold their audience with pieces that are in a sense evergreens. News is great, but it’s the [longer stories] that make the show.

“I think right now we are doing smart shows with good sidebar pieces,” says the former Yale football player and ABC News correspondent. “Clearly, though, the point will come as an operation when it will become more and more unwieldy. What concerns me is that all of the checks and balances be strong, be thorough and be in place. It is a very tight shop now in that way, but the question becomes: How much can you funnel through that narrow space to make sure that the editorial process is as tight as it needs to be? We are all a mistake away from taking a major hit.”

In its first year on the air, before Shapiro’s tenure, “Dateline” aired a segment on General Motors in which producers faked a truck accident. In that story’s wake, NBC News President Michael Gartner resigned. Since then, there have been some jabs--the journalism magazine Brill’s Content has been critical of some of “Dateline’s” consumer reporting--but Shapiro says his staff has tried its utmost to be fair. That fairness, says Phillips, cuts down on the drama that brought newsmagazines to the fore in the first place

“I think the crusading journalism which marked the early days of magazine work--whether it was Mike Wallace at ’60 Minutes’ or Geraldo Rivera at ’20/20'--really set them up as the investigative aces who were out there uncovering important stuff and righting wrongs,” says Phillips. “I think you will see less of that, generally, at ‘Dateline.’ The approach over here is to emphasize balance. I think the great story is the gray story. Usually, when I see something that is pretty clear-cut on television--black hats here and white hats there--I usually wonder what I didn’t hear.”

Pauley bridles at recent statements by Don Hewitt, creator and executive producer of “60 Minutes,” that there are too many prime-time newsmagazines and too few good stories to fill them. She says that when she was a young news anchor doing Saturday nights in Indianapolis, she was watching “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” when there was a quick cut-in from the network about the Saturday Night Massacre, when the attorney general resigned and his assistant was fired by President Nixon, who wanted special prosecutor Archibald Cox off the Watergate case.

“Fast-forward 25 years, a few Saturdays ago, in the context of another presidential crisis, when NBC blew up the schedule and did a two-hour special report,” Pauley says. “It’s just hard for me to see why this isn’t progress.

“Unless I misunderstand Don, he is literally saying the only reason we are doing five nights at ‘Dateline’ is because of a failure of imagination on the entertainment side,” she says. “And I’m thinking: ‘So, isn’t it nonetheless a better development from when the only news in prime time were those silly 30-second updates?’ There may be plenty wrong with this business, but I’m not sure that’s the significant issue.”

As Pauley speaks, in a crowded hallway nearby, four young associate producers are poised before video screens and edit desks with headphones firmly in place. Each is logging tape after tape of footage from Hurricane Georges. Each shot of a palm tree swinging low and a car whooshing down a flooded street will have its few seconds on a shot sheet. Hours of tape then will be winnowed to the four or five minutes that will make it on air. More than a dozen people in Manhattan, not to mention who knows how many freelance camera and sound people in the field, will have a hand in what will be the shortest story of that night’s “Dateline.”

If he just wanted filler, Shapiro could have easily tripled Georges’ air time.

“I think that, in fact, if you look at the history of television, whenever there has been an expansion, there has always been some group--some within the industry and some without--who always say, ‘There is never going to be enough news to fill it,’ ” he says. “I was talking to a guy recently who is a senior producer for years at ABC. He told me that when ABC went from a 15-minute nightly newscast to 30 minutes, they said, ‘Ohhh, what are we going to do? How are we going to fill it up?’

“At ‘Dateline,’ we have never said there is not enough news. I sit here today and I have 40 stories in our bank that I would like to get on,” he says.

The complaint that “Dateline” is big on soft news-you-can-use doesn’t particularly rankle Shapiro. He may love breaking news and investigations, he says, but that isn’t all that should concern “Dateline” viewers.

“I think our view of news is not just what you would see on the front page, it is what you would see in all parts of the paper,” he says. “Stories can be compelling if they are a front-page breaking news story or an interesting profile you might see in the middle of the paper or a how-to-raise-your-children spot that you may see in the family pages or a quirky story you might see in the lifestyle section. . . . I think our definition of what is news is just broader,” he says.

One of the stories easily and enthusiastically approved at the day’s news meeting was a 2 1/2-minute feature on the technical tricks of the upcoming “Star Wars” prequel movie. Not exactly, say, a six-month investigation of nursing home abuse. “People our age go to a lot of movies, and I think we are curious about them,” he says. “I think it is interesting, so we give it what it’s worth, which may only be those 2 1/2 minutes.”

Shapiro acknowledges that this is not the only way to do a newsmagazine, but it is his newsmagazine’s way. “We do a whole thing entitled ‘Family Focus,’ where we do things about how to raise kids, how to discipline kids, how to make kids eat. ’60 Minutes’ doesn’t do those. We do consumer reporting. So does ’20/20.’ That’s not what ’60 Minutes’ likes to do,” he says.

Bob Jaeger’s yellow hard hat is scraping the plethora of overhead lights that bathe Studio 3B. His eye peering straight into his Sony studio camera, he has just been swept up from the floor and dollied left on a crane steadied by three other crewmen. What viewers at home will see out of this is a “Dateline” logo magically appearing in lights on the floor and a pan to anchor Phillips standing at a railing one story above the studio floor. Phillips gives a short intro to a medical story on Marfan’s syndrome. The whole sequence will be about 25 seconds on the screen, but the planning, rehearsing and execution will have taken the better part of a half-hour.

This season, director Guy Pepper has to create more different studio shots than ever. There are at least five segments each show, each needing an introduction and a close, which means more than 2,500 in-studio shots a year for Phillips and/or co-anchor Pauley. Pepper has transformed Studio 3B, which housed the “Today” show before it moved to its ground-floor, glassed-in Rockefeller Center digs. He has put in dozens of permutations of different sets and backdrops. There are two different kinds of staircases, several sizes of TV screens, maps of continents and hot spots, scenes of skylines and newsrooms, and several anchor desks and chairs. Moving all the equipment around keeps about 20 stagehands busy full-time these days, and certainly cuts into Phillips’ and Pauley’s day.

“That is a concern to me that the demands of the studio are going to steal from me,” Phillips says. “But while it’s the least interesting and least rewarding part of the job, it’s important, because those lead-ins and tags need to strike the right tone for ‘Dateline.’ ”

Pauley says she’s doing more multi-tasking in her studio time. “Even as I have my makeup done, I’m at the computer, having communication with the producer, so no time is wasted,” Pauley says. “Hopefully, we can squeeze even that time out of the process, if we are even more focused.”

At the same time “Dateline” is expanding, NBC’s news division is being asked to tighten its budgets in the wake of the network paying exorbitant rates for rights to broadcast “ER” and National Football League games. So far, this has not meant any “Dateline” job cuts, but there are nips and tucks all over. The assistant producer on Oster’s story had to stay home from the Utah shoot. Pauley lamented redoing some shooting on a Michael Eisner profile when she found out it cost $40,000 in crew overtime.

Gorfain, one of the four broadcast producers on “Dateline,” is a senior producer, supervising about 30 stories that producers and correspondents have in progress, and he is producing from three to five stories himself, which is a normal load for all “Dateline” producers, meaning that there could be as many as 400 stories in some state of progress at any one time on the show.

“I don’t think it’s a lot. The fuel mixes according to what the engine needs. Some stories take a long time to do, others go quickly,” says Gorfain, who once worked three months on a hospital series for “Dateline"--and one day on an O.J. Simpson story. “I think we pride ourselves on our amoeba-like way of encircling whatever needs to be reported on at the moment.”

In the end, though, it may well not be the number of stories or NBC budgets or whatever juggling act Shapiro perfects that determines how much prime-time news we see. “Networks will be the first to notice if we have too many newsmagazines,” says Paul Schulman, whose company buys TV time for advertisers. “Once they find people not watching them or advertisers not buying on them, you will see them go away as quickly as they came.”


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