Chicken Or Egg?

Howard Kurtz notes an interesting trend among television news magazines; instead of tackling a wide range of interests, they have increasingly focused exclusively on crime. Kurtz argues that the trend has been prompted by a decline in viewership as networks flooded the zone with such programs:

Television news — especially local television — has always been drawn to crime. But in a country in which more than 16,000 murders were committed last year, are the killings of ordinary people, however tragic, really worth all this airtime?
“I think it lends itself to storytelling,” says David Corvo, executive producer of “Dateline.” “You’ve got a confrontation, right and wrong, guilt or innocence, and a resolution, and there’s some suspense getting to that resolution.”
The tabloidization of these programs comes as the networks have fallen out of love with newsmagazines, which were crippled by overexposure. As recently as 1999, magazine shows served up a dozen hours a week. Over the years, “Eye to Eye,” “Public Eye,” “Now,” “West 57th,” “60 Minutes II” and others came and went. “Dateline” and “48 Hours” have largely been relegated to weekends.

One has to ask the question as to whether the decline came before the focus on true crime or as a result of it. After all, A&E has had the franchise on such documentaries through three of its brands: American Justice, City Confidential, and Cold Case Files. Each has their own flavor, as regular viewers have learned. AJ does straightforward criminal cases, usually murder. City Confidential has much more of a tabloid feel, delivering dish on a particular location along with a murder case that highlights it — and the late Paul Winfield gave it a certain delicious feeling with his excellent narration. Cold Case Files specializes in justice delayed, and inspired a host of network crime-drama clones.
The network news magazines came late to the party, and with few exceptions do not add to the artform, such as it is. One exception may be Stone Phillips’ expose of on-line predators, a series of Dateline NBC shows that captured people traveling to remote locations just to have sex with underage girls. (One memorable pervert brought along his four-year-old son.) That type of work may provide some tabloid spectacle, but it also rid our communities of dozens of sexual predators — at least it did after the initial segment, when NBC didn’t think to coordinate with law enforcement, a mistake they didn’t repeat. Still, that seems pretty close to the formula originated by Fox’s America’s Most Wanted, a two-decade example of interactive law enforcement that has captured hundreds of fugitives — and even a few cold-case perpetrators.
News magazines keep following formulas in a quest to build ratings, but they still have never truly broken from either the 60 Minutes mold or the formats pioneered and mastered at A&E. The latter proves especially problematic, because A&E airs episodes of their crime shows every night, giving cable and satellite customers an opportunity to sate themselves, leaving little appetite for the offerings of the networks.
Can newsmagazines survive? Perhaps, but they need to break out of the molds they have followed for so long. Nightline might be a better example to follow, or perhaps a new effort focusing on other important subjects, such as foreign policy and war, or the effort to curtail gangs. Those may seem rather narrow areas of focus, but it has to beat the deathchase that Kurtz eloquently analyzes in his article.
Addendum: Kurtz also writes one of the best daily media round-ups. Bookmark him, as well as the National Journal’s Blogometer and Slate’s round-up (which has no permanent link), and check all of them each weekday. All three are a don’t-miss for me.