Next fall CBS’ 60 Minutes will celebrate its 25th anniversary and become the third-longest-running series on nighttime network television, behind The Tonight Show and the Walt Disney series. Since it moved to Sunday nights in 1975, only one other show has lasted more than four seasons against it (and that was Disney). So when ABC announced earlier this year that it was going to launch a competing newsmagazine this summer-overseen by ABC News president Roone Arledge, the creative force behind PrimeTime Live — more than a few industry watchers thought the plan was nuts. Tom Yellin, executive producer of the still-untitled show, concedes that no one at ABC News was rushing to take on this assignment. ”Let me put it this way,” he says. ”Anyone would be insane to want to get their head beaten in, which is what is going to happen to us in the beginning.”
ABC’s recent decision to postpone the show until next January (following the announcement that Arledge had undergone surgery for prostate cancer) may seem like a vote of no confidence, but it might actually have given the newsmag a lease on life. If the show had stuck to its original debut date, June 28, the results would have been disastrous, says vice president of ABC News Joanna Bistany. ”There was just no way we could have done it. We would have had an hour of black air.” While Yellin has hired a crew and shot stories, only one anchor has been signed, Nightline substitute anchor Forrest Sawyer. ABC confirms that it has approached Connie Chung to be Sawyer’s cohost, but Chung and her agent decline comment.
With a seven-month reprieve, ABC remains confident about mounting what could be one of the coming TV season’s biggest battles. Arledge remains very involved, according to insiders, holding meetings in his house as he recuperates. And ABC can find ammunition in the new Nielsen figures showing that 60 Minutes is the lowest-rated newsmagazine among 18- to 49-year-olds, and that 6 out of 10 60 Minutes viewers are over 50.
There seems to be room for a Jay Leno of Sunday-night newsmags. ”If you’re ABC,” says Ken Auletta, author of Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way, ”and you look at the kind of money 60 Minutes makes for CBS, and how relatively little it costs ($500,000 compared with $1.2 million for an hour-long drama), you say, ‘God, let’s do it!”’ Even, he says, if it takes a long time — ABC waited for two years for PrimeTime to make it.
60 Minutes‘ vulnerability and ABC’s readiness aside, some large questions loom. Does ABC have room for another newsmagazine? Its 20/20 and PrimeTime Live have already gone neck-and-neck on big stories. What happens when you add a newcomer to the mix? And can prime time handle a seventh newsmagazine? The latest entry, NBC’s Jane Pauley-hosted Dateline NBC, has had to do stories on People Who Think They’re Ugly to get noticed.
On the other hand, no newsmagazine has ever gone up against the Big One, so it’s hard to say what an attempt will bring. At least 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt is encouraging: ”Television is a big pond, a great place for anyone. Come on in, the water’s fine.”
Or is that what the shark said to the minnow?