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TV news won't be filling the writers-strike gap

NEW YORK - To prepare for a prolonged writers strike, television networks have stockpiled a gladiator battle, a lie-detector game, a remade "Password," a celebrity "Apprentice" and a competition for aspiring Pussycat Dolls.

NEW YORK - To prepare for a prolonged writers strike, television networks have stockpiled a gladiator battle, a lie-detector game, a remade "Password," a celebrity "Apprentice" and a competition for aspiring Pussycat Dolls.

Among the new shows to roll out in prime-time this winter, what's the one programming genre the broadcasters are virtually ignoring?

The news.

With the exception of CBS ordering a few more "48 Hours: Mysteries" true crime yarns, the networks haven't looked to their news divisions to fill holes expected when viewers' favorite dramas and comedies are on hiatus.

Even a vital, true-life reality show can't break through. The most wide-open presidential nominating contests since before television was invented will reach voters in January. At this point, the networks plan only to insert a minute or two of Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary results between commercials during prime time.

"It's not surprising that you're not seeing news filling the gap caused by the writers' strike," said Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "More and more, the networks are only about whatever sells. They used to genuflect in the direction of the public interest. Now they only bow down before money."

The programming plans are also a reflection of how much the business has changed in the decade since "Dateline NBC" was on that network's schedule five nights a week, even when the writers were working.

That's not to say prime-time will be empty of news programming in the coming weeks. ABC News will air back-to-back debates of Republican and Democratic presidential candidates on Saturday, Jan. 5, following the Iowa caucuses.

"Dateline NBC" will reappear on Sundays after the football season. The newsmagazine will also show the latest edition of its "To Catch a Predator" series, boiled down to an hour and buried on the Friday night between Christmas and New Year's. Once these shows ran several nights during ratings sweeps month; controversy over the subject matter is likely most responsible for the low-wattage return.

To this point, the news divisions have come up with few other special prime-time plans.

During their heyday, newsmagazines proliferated less out of a sense of public service, but to fill holes.

"Until 'Survivor' came around, if you weren't going to do drama, comedy or a movie, it was a newsmagazine," said Preston Beckman, Fox's programming chief, who had the same job at NBC in the 1990s. "Over the last five or six years, the number of alternatives that a network has has increased. You don't have to turn to news as much."

Both news and reality programming offer penny-pinching executives the same advantage of being cheaper to produce than scripted material.

A reality show, however, can hit the jackpot in a way news never can. Create a successful franchise, a "Deal or No Deal" or "Dancing With the Stars," and you have a gift that keeps giving, week after week, year after year.

A prime-time news program may occasionally attract a lot of people if, say, Michael Jackson is talking about child-abuse allegations. But those successes are fleeting. And it's a quiet period for tabloid scandals, Beckman said.

The viewers that news shows attract tend to be older. Reality skews young, and it's no secret that marketers crave youth. Even "60 Minutes," the oldest and best newsmagazine, isn't immune to the demographic hustle - features on football stars and Bruce Springsteen are designed to bring youth into the mix and lower the average age of the audience.

Perhaps out of a sense that traditional news reports were boring, newsmagazine fare has drifted more toward social experiments, true crime and celebrity interviews. The two "Dateline NBC" specials that have aired so far this season were Ann Curry's visit with the family of septuplets and Matt Lauer's interview with Sen. Larry Craig.

News programming that presses to be entertaining "has the fate of all entertainment programs - they fall out of fashion," Lichter said.

Many network executives believe that the cable news networks are there to satisfy people interested in news during prime-time. CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC will all devote many hours to covering the presidential campaign during 2008.

Corporate politics may also play a hidden role in driving the broadcast networks away from news. Prime-time schedules are drawn up by executives on the West Coast with an entertainment background who may not want to cede control of hours on their schedules to news executives in New York.

Not all the news is grim, news junkies.

The late-night newsmagazine "Nightline" has profited from the writers strike, gaining an average of 200,000 viewers in November from the previous years, while Jay Leno's and David Letterman's ratings nosedived. Broadcast schedulers may take note of that. *