In 1989, like every year, there were winners and losers. Michael Jordan dominated basketball. Sex, lies and videotape was a sensation at the box office. Less fortunate were Panamanian General Manuel Noriega, who was ousted, and the Berlin Wall, which fell.
Taylor Swift and news magazine Inside Edition were both born that year. She’s still young for a pop star, but that’s old for a syndicated TV show, especially one that needs to keep pulling in ratings amidst massive changes in the television business.
Those closest to the show, which is distributed by CBS Television Distribution, are understandably proud at its longevity and persistence in attracting eye balls as rivals disappear and TV viewing habits shift. It faced stiff competition right from the early years from Hard Copy, A Current Affair and American Journal. All are long gone.
“It’s historic. Twenty-five years on the air in a changing environment, in the way people consume media (and) it has four million viewers a day,” says Armando Nunez, president and CEO of the CBS Global Distribution Group.
Nunez has a soft spot for the show anyway. His wife, Madeline, was working there when they met on a blind date. Asked if he recalled any particular stories she did, he said, “Not really, it was too long ago. Wait. On second thought, I loved all her segments.”
For the 2012-2013 TV season that ended last month, Inside Edition pulled in 4.1 million viewers and averaged a 2.9 household rating, second to Entertainment Tonight, another CBS property. It boasts a steady spot among the top ten most watched syndicated shows.
“There’s a saying that familiarity breeds contempt. But in television, familiarity breeds ratings,” says Deborah Norville, the show’s charismatic anchor and indefatigable promoter for the past 18 years. Norville’s book The Way We Are: Heroes, Scoundrels and Oddballs from 25 Years of Inside Edition, with contributions from producer Charlie Carillo, comes out in late October. She has everything to with the show’s staying power.
“Deborah is a truly gifted anchorwoman. She goes on set and is totally in command of the show. It’s her physicality, her communication, her authenticity,” says Inside Edition’s longtime executive producer Charles Lachman.
The pair have fine-tuned the half-hour program with a mix of entertainment, human interest and investigative pieces, presenting the news of the day with a spin. It’s tight and fastpaced, each show has eight or nine segments. (It had only three blocks when it launched — a traditional 60 Minutes approach — but changed to keep pace with viewers’ shrinking attention spans.)
“Our bread and butter is our way of spinning stories that are happening right now. We flip on the daily news and see how the networks present themselves. But we cherry pick,” says Norville.
“It has to be louder and noisier than a network show but also have credibility,” adds Lachman. A key to its long life, he adds, is that “we’ve always provided the steak along with the sizzle.”
Big moments include a 1995 scoop exposing malfunctioning rear-door latches on Chrysler minivans. Chrysler recalled them.
In 1996, the show won a prestigious George Polk award for an undercover report on insurance fraud, with disturbing footage of a door-to-door salesman using a coat hanger to fish coins from a child’s piggy bank.
Inside Edition’s coverage of 9/11 was nominated for a News and Documentary Emmy, a rare event for a syndicated show. The recognition was particularly gratifying because the show was barely seen anywhere the week the Twin Towers were hit. “Our clearances were pre-empted by the networks. We were only airing on a handful of independent stations,” Lachman says. “The staff is risking their lives and working like dogs and no one was watching. It’s the pride of telling the story. The Monday after, it was the absolutely best show we’ve ever done.”
Norville’s week in the Davidson County jail in North Carolina for an expose of prison life made for gripping television in 2000.
Early on “I realized the show could have an impact and I wanted to always be sure to include in the mix stories that could,” she said.
But these big stories are the exception. Norville has no illusions. Her goal seems modest, to give a viewer “something to use at a cocktail party, or when you drop off your kid at school. Something that makes you smile, or makes you think or feel interested.”
If it doesn’t, she’ll try again. It’s a daily show after all.
“When it really matters we are frighteningly good. When nothing is going on, we are good at making chopped salad out of you-knowwhat. I’m like Scarlett O’Hara. Tomorrow is another day. We can redeem ourselves,” she says. “But most days I don’t usually say that.”
Success also means keeping a wary eye on the all-pervasive celebrity culture that could provide endless and easy fodder for the show. “I think that when we have felt the pressure to spin in that direction, it has come back to bite us. We have many worthy competitors that do that.” (Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, Extra, TMZ on TV, omg! Insider, Showbiz Tonight and E! News, to name a few).
A segment earlier this month on the stellar and widely reported ratings for the season finale of Breaking Bad was followed by one on the personal cost of meth addiction with gruesome photos of women who basically lost their faces and their lives to the drug.
Ironically, as video output increases on all platforms, television and online outlets have adopted an Inside Edition-y editing and programming style, which also keeps the pressure on to differentiate.
“We have to be incredibly competitive, with exclusive material, or turn it around in a compelling way,” said Lachman. The difference is, “We don’t just do videos. We do stories with a beginning, a middle and an end.”
Lachman was there the day Inside Edition launched on Jan. 9, 1989, with host Sir David Frost, the eminent British journalist who died in September. The roughest patch in the show’s history was probably that first month on the air. Frost’s English accent didn’t play well in Middle America, ratings dipped, and he left Inside Edition after four weeks. The show’s senior correspondent, a then-obscure guy named Bill O’Reilly, moved into the anchor chair. Inside Edition was off and running.
“Bill is incredibly authentic. It’s the reason he pops on television. Who he is on the air is who he is in person. He’d be the first to tell you there’s arrogance about him,” says Lachman. O’Reilly, he said, also brought the sensibility of middle-class America to the show. He left in 1995 when his contract expired and headed to Harvard for a degree on public policy, then to greater fame on Fox News.
Enter Norville, who had been a co-host at NBC’s Today, had her own syndicated radio show on ABC and worked as a correspondent for CBS. The Georgia native also has a strong connection with Middle America, which she thinks has helped the show. “While we may like the New York base, it’s not a New York or Los Angeles mentality,” she says.
Norville is also tireless in traveling the country to foster relationships with local affiliates, They appear to appreciate her efforts. When they evaluate their lineups, “Inside Edition” usually has a spot.
“Deborah is always there for them,” says Joseph DiSalvo, president of sales for CBS Television Distribution. From industry events to doing “something live from their TV station, an agency luncheon, a personalized promo. That goes a long way.” It’s partly why major broadcast groups have carried the show for years “in very, very good time slots.”
Norville calls local stations “the most important. Everyone from those stations made the decision to put Inside Edition on instead of something else. I always make sure I am available to the affiliates when I am in town.”
Lachman says, “Our bread and butter is trying to put a great show on the air. Social media and websites are playing a critical role but it’s still about eyeballs on the show and station licensing fees. Our eye is always on that.”
Asked if he expects another 25 years of Inside Edition, he just laughs. He’ll take it day by day. “Each day has to be approached as if it’s the first day of November sweeps.”
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