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The Economics of Television News

Research has shown that a large factor behind the proliferation of news magazines is cost. Typically they are much less expensive to produce than entertainment programming. A 1998 New York Times article states that news magazines cost about two-thirds of the $1.2 million average for a drama. Also, advertiser support tends to be high because these types of shows attract a favorable demographic: young, urban adult viewers. For these reasons, it seems obvious why a network like NBC might devote five hours of it's evening schedule to a cash cow program like Dateline.

These programs consistently rate among the top twenty most watched television shows. During February sweeps, Broadcasting and Cable Magazine reports that the three network news magazines did remarkably well, with the Wednesday episode of Dateline NBC rated as the eighteenth most popular show for the month. The Sunday version of CBS's 60 Minutes has historically been a ratings booster, and this sweeps period was no exception. In November 1998, another month for ratings wars, the program aired a videotape of an assisted suicide, performed by "Dr. Death", Jack Kervorkian. The videotape ultimately led to Kervorkain's conviction for second degree murder. The episode was watched in approximately 14 million homes.

Another big ratings draw was Barbara Walter's interview with presidential paramour Monica Lewinsky. Aired as a special two hour 20/20, the program turned out to be the highest rated show of February sweeps. Almost 80 million Americans tuned in to hear Lewinsky talk about her affair with Bill Clinton.

These types of ratings bring in big money for the networks. These types of stories may not be journalistically sound, but as long as they are profitable, we will continue to see this type of tabloid coverage.

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