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NBC contemplates a trim of ‘Dateline’

Times Staff Writer

“Dateline NBC” will lose an hour of turf on NBC’s schedule this fall, highlighting the pressure on networks to assemble schedules that attract the young-adult demographics advertisers seek.

Sample lineups making the rounds this week indicate that the newsmagazine will be pared back from three to two weekly editions, with a drama likely to replace the show Friday nights.

NBC is still finalizing its lineup and will be first among the six broadcast networks to present its new program roster to media buyers in New York next week.

Although much has been made of situation comedies losing ground to so-called reality shows, news has also been affected. As recently as a few years ago, “Dateline” occupied five hours of NBC’s lineup, prompting CBS Television Chairman Leslie Moonves to compare the magazine to a virus by saying it was “spreading.”

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Unscripted programs have provided another way to balance the cost of a prime-time schedule. Like news, they’re cheaper to produce than one-hour dramas, and they tend to perform disproportionately well among viewers age 18 to 49, the age bracket that major product categories such as beer, soft drinks and fast food primarily want to reach.

Ratings for news magazines, by contrast, have declined this season, and their audience tends to skew older. Despite what amounted to a brief surge of interest during the war in Iraq, most of this year’s highest-rated prime-time news telecasts have involved pop culture, from ABC’s Michael Jackson special to its interviews with Whitney Houston and the Dixie Chicks.

NBC News is not expected to reduce staffing at “Dateline,” in large part because the program could be expanded once a new series fails. In addition, the network -- which declined to comment officially -- is expected to use editions of “Dateline” more strategically to bolster its lineup: replacing reruns of serialized dramas that don’t repeat well during the season. As a result, the number of news hours produced overall won’t be significantly diminished.

NBC recently scored solid ratings with a Katie Couric interview of the Central Park jogger, which ran at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night. The network is also filling a gap in its lineup by airing a two-hour “Dateline” tonight, focusing on an arson investigation in Arizona.

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The shift comes as the news program is losing one of its longtime anchors, Jane Pauley, who will make her final appearance next week.

NBC, which sold a record $2.7 billion in advertising last spring, will likely add half a dozen new series to its lineup, with an emphasis on establishing new sitcoms as “Friends” and “Frasier” head into their final seasons.


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