''60 Minutes''-style magazine shows -- Ken Tucker reviews ''PrimeTime Live,'' ''20/20,'' and ''Street Stories''

New ”60 Minutes”-style magazine shows

After squandering a lot of time, money, and psychic energy trying to establish themselves as TV newsmagazines with subjects and styles different from 60 Minutes, ABC’s youngest newsmag, Primetime Live, and its oldest, 20/20, have just hit their ratings strides by giving up. That is to say, by giving up any claims to originality: Averaging three stories per hour and anchored by familiar old pros, PrimeTime Live and 20/20 currently offer that same mixture of breaking news, high-toned sensationalism, and comfy cultural coverage that has made the 23-year-old 60 Minutes a top-rated series.

But combine these shows with CBS’ two other entries in this field, 48 Hours and the new-but-awfully-familiar-looking Street Stories, add the fact that NBC is working on a fresh effort in this genre, scheduled to begin in March with Jane Pauley as host, and you’ve got more than a trend — you’ve got a glut: newsmag mania.

Why all these newsmagazine shows now? Well, they’re cheap to produce (at about $450,000 per episode, half as much as a typical hour-long drama), and they’re pseudo-classy (is there a more sober-sided sight on TV than Chris Wallace in his PrimeTime Live ”chief correspondent” trenchcoat, unless it’s his dad, Mike, in his 60 Minutes trenchcoat?).

And unlike mere entertainment programming such as The Commish, PrimeTime Live can actually make news: PTL‘s Dec. 19 exclusive interview with William Kennedy Smith’s accuser not only revealed Patricia Bowman’s name and face but also showcased Diane Sawyer’s new, just-give-me-a-brush-and-I’ll-give-you-the-news short haircut. In today’s world of expedient TV journalism, both the interview and the haircut were of equal public relations importance; it ain’t news unless both The New York Times and Entertainment Tonight covers it.

On a recent Thursday night, PrimeTime Live drew more viewers than its competition, an L.A. Law rerun and a new Knots Landing — unimaginable ratings a year before. Back then, Sawyer and Sam Donaldson were touting their live interviews with celebs like Roseanne Arnold and making happy talk while sitting side by side in front of a stony-silent studio audience. Nowadays, the show’s announcer yells, ”Stay tuned for PrimeTime!” — there’s no mention of the word ”live” because the show’s reports are now taped — and, in a civilized separation agreement, smilin’ Sam stays close to his pals David Brinkley and George Will in Washington while Diane displays her earlobes at a New York news desk.

PrimeTime tends to lure viewers in two ways: with breathless exposes that ultimately serve only to expose how overexposed their subjects are (the Bowman interview; the 10,000th story about what a sad case Beach Boy Bri-an Wilson has become); or with high-toned yet skimpy reports on subjects like young right-wing fanatics in Germany — ”the shadow army of the neo-Nazis!” as Sawyer said huskily.

Over at 20/20, there’s a different sort of anchor-team chemistry. Hugh Downs looks as if he never moves from behind his anchor desk — one imagines he just lives in the studio during the week, happy and content in the dark, rousing himself only when the 20/20 crew flicks on the lights on Friday evenings to give him his weekly workout. An avuncular lizard, Downs sits in stark contrast to Barbara Walters, who’s always a little breathless, as if she’s just blown in from the Coast, refreshed and tingly from having made some movie star sob for her latest celebrity special. Walters reacts to 20/20 investigations into cross burnings in Dubuque or the dangers of prenatal testing with a stagy, wide-eyed dismay, as if all this stuff is as much news to her as it is to us.

But 20/20 this season has often had more interesting stories than any of the other newsmags, 60 Minutes included. Where, in its early days, 20/20 tried to distinguish itself from 60 by being the kinder, gentler investigative show, it’s now become admirably aggressive. Correspondent Lynn Sherr’s Jan. 3 report on institutionalized sexism at the highest levels of the medical and law professions was hard-edged stuff-admirable work in a rare week that saw 20/20 climb into the Nielsen top 10.

Then, too, the show’s John Stossel has cornered the market on network exposes of consumer fraud. Lately, Stossel has hunted down healthy workers he claimed were ripping off worker’s compensation benefits and attempted to prove that if you play the stock market, you’d probably do as just well to choose your stocks by throwing darts at a list of companies than by employing a high-priced investment firm. As Stossel tossed darts himself, his mustache , bristled mischievously when he hit one particular bull’s-eye: ”Whoops!” said this chipper ABC employee, ”I just hit CBS!” The camera panned closer, and sure enough, he had.

Over at dart-riddled CBS, 60 Minutes‘ Ed Bradley is providing his familiar face as host of a four-week tryout run for Street Stories. The premiere of this 48 Hours spin-off found Bradley weaving around a metaphor playing off the title, promising us tales of ”the crossroads, the dead ends, the hairpin turns of American life” — screeech! But it was the usual 60 Minutes — style fare with an emphasis on the justice system: a profile of a tough-talking Chattanooga, Tenn., judge; a report on a Houston police investigation into gay-bashing. Solid stuff, crisply edited, and a heck of a lot better programming choice than, say, P.S.I. Luv U 2. But nothing new, either.

When will newsmag mania cease? Not soon: ABC was recently reported to be planning a news show that will go right up against 60 Minutes itself, on Sunday nights starting in June. Apparently, ABC’s reasoning is that aging 60 Minutes stalwarts like Mike Wallace and producer Don Hewitt will retire in a few years, and when 60 Minutes slips in the ratings, ABC’s show would be in place to pick up all those viewers lonely for Sunday-night exposes. But Mike and Don are still pretty sprightly fellows; by the time they hang it up, isn’t it possible that everything — every blessed thing in America, from political scandals to your Uncle Harry’s shady tax write-offs — will have been exposed?
20/20: B+
PrimeTime Live: C+
Street Stories: B-.