What's happening to NBC news? -- In recent weeks, the network's broadcasts seem to have taken on a tabloid tilt

Hanky-panky in high places! Child Stars on Drugs! Dead Bodies in Living Color! No, you’re not reading The National Enquirer or The Globe. You’re watching NBC News.

In recent months, NBC has begun to embrace a far more lurid — and, some charge, far shoddier — news style. It’s not alone. ABC’s 20/20 exorcism segment on April 5 also had heads spinning. But NBC is leading the way — and viewers are following. With tabloid stories and gory graphics, NBC Nightly News, long in third place, has passed CBS Evening News, taking second in the Nielsens behind ABC’s World News Tonight for the last seven weeks.

The peacock network’s new style has already ruffled a lot of feathers. When news division president Michael Gartner decided to name the alleged rape victim at the Kennedys’ Palm Beach estate on the April 16 edition of NBC Nightly News, he drew heated criticism from NBC’s own local stations as well as from media watchdogs. Boston affiliate WBZ-TV went so far as to snip out the woman’s name from the Nightly News segment. ”We have a long-standing policy not to identify victims of sexual crimes,” says Stan Hopkins, WBZ’s news director. ”Technically, it was a violation of our contract with NBC, but we haven’t heard a word about it from the network.”

Many questioned Gartner’s judgment even more when he named the woman again on ABC’s Nightline on April 17, violating ABC’s declared policy. The next day, Nightly News executive producer Steve Friedman defended NBC’s decision by noting that the victim’s name had been spoken on Nightline as well — neglecting to mention that the speaker was his own boss. An NBC spokesman said Gartner warned a Nightline producer that he might use the name, a claim that Nightline spokeswoman Laura Wessner calls ”categorically untrue. Mr. Gartner did not speak with anyone on our staff.”

Friedman, a onetime Today executive producer who returned to NBC after masterminding the short-lived flop USA Today on TV, seems determined to give NBC’s nightly news a style that’s ripped, sometimes literally, from the tabloids. On April 25, Nightly News displayed photos of serial killer Ted Bundy’s corpse from the scandal sheet Weekly World News. ”Some of the pictures in our story are graphic,” ran the warning-cum-enticement.

”You have to convince people that if they missed your show, they missed something,” Friedman said last summer, shortly after he took over the broadcast. ”(If the news) just goes over the day’s events, you’re no longer special.”

Anthea Disney, executive producer of the self-professed tabloid show A Current Affair, is not surprised by NBC’s new style. ”There are those who say tabloid TV is the wave of the future — people are becoming accustomed to seeing things that are more entertaining.” But recently NBC has crossed lines that even Affair won’t breach: ”It never occurred to us to reveal the identity of the (Palm Beach woman),” says Disney. ”I don’t think NBC should have done it.”

And lately, NBC News’ prime-time efforts have been larded with skin and scandal as well. On April 28, Exposé — NBC’s fledgling investigative newsmagazine — featured a report on Virginia Sen. Charles Robb’s alleged liaison with a beauty queen, complete with teasing music (”Bette Davis Eyes”) and soft-focus footage of strolling lovers culled from an ad. On April 26, NBC reached a nadir with its special Hollywood’s Lost Youth. After Bryant Gumbel purred through a featherweight interview with NBC star Tempestt Bledsoe (The Cosby Show), co-anchor Katherine Couric abandoned credibility: In an interview with The Partridge Family‘s Danny Bonaduce, she forced the thrice-arrested ex-actor to sing the group’s hit ”I Think I Love You,” then gigglingly joined in.

”It’s always been the case that the last-place newscast has the least to lose by taking chances with its format,” says former CBS News president Van Gordon Sauter. ”NBC News is still a work in progress. It’ll be some time before we see what it becomes.”

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