The recent passing of 60 Minutes veteran Ed Bradley was not only a loss for the TV journalism community, but the coverage of his death and career highlights also provided a stark reminder that the genre of journalism for which he was most noted is slowly fading away.
Once a showcase for investigative journalism, TV newsmagazine programs have, for the most part, become an extension of the tabloid journalism that pervades every other facet of Americans' news consumption. Arguably, programs like 60 Minutes or Frontline still retain a high caliber of reporting and address a range of important topics, but in a field where there was once great competition, things have decidedly gone soft.
Take Dateline NBC, for example. In the mid-1990s, the show was a ratings- and award-winning hit for the network based on a mix of investigative crime stories and the occasional celebrity fluff piece. Pleased with that winning formula, NBC decided to extend the program to several days a week. But it wasn't sustainable, says Judy Muller, associate professor of journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communications and former ABC News correspondent.
"They soon learned there wasn't audience for that much reporting," she says. "They started to dumb it down. You can't create that many good news-breaking stories a week."
Today, the program is probably best known for being the type of journalistic vehicle that will devote one hour to an interview with Britney Spears (where she professed her undying love for K-Fed) and its "gotcha!" style of journalism made famous by its "To Catch a Predator" series. Similar programs have become promotional vehicles for projects on the network or those being sponsored by the network's parent company.
Certainly that's not the case with all of the programs in the genre. For all of the headaches and turmoil that 60 Minutes II's report on President Bush's alleged poor performance in the Texas National Guard caused, it was at least a bold - even if ultimately inaccurate - piece of TV journalism. It's hard to recall the last 20/20 or Primetime Live segment that sparked such controversy or even water-cooler discussion.
This week, Dan Rather will venture back into the newsmagazine world, albeit on the smaller stage of HDNet, with his weekly show Dan Rather Reports. But how it will be received - or by how large of an audience it will be seen - remains up in the air.
"The 60 Minutes formula is tremendously successful and incredibly difficult to imitate," says Muller. "It requires outstanding producers and correspondents who are given a great deal of time to develop those kinds of stories. That's no longer in most budgets. Time for reporting is not what they care about. They want to put stuff on the air fast."
But perhaps the biggest reason for the decline in the quality of the TV newsmagazine is that it does not have an audience that will allow it to go on. The average age of a 60 Minutes viewer is 53. Its youngest correspondent, Steve Kroft, is 61.
Soon after Bradley's death, Muller says, a news station sent a camera crew to the university's campus to get the students' reactions. "They first had to explain who Ed Bradley was," she says. "And I think that's very telling."
Ironically, the current news environment of three-minute news segments and talking heads provides newsmagazine programs with an unprecedented opportunity, says Nick Ragone, SVP and director of the New York Communications Media Strategy Network at Ketchum. "The potential there is to be more powerful and relevant than ever," he says.
"You almost never get insightful and long-format pieces [elsewhere in TV news]," Ragone adds. "Nobody is sinking their teeth into big stories."