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Eye to Eye With News `Reality' Shows

`DATELINE NBC" ... "20/20" on ABC ... "48 Hours" on CBS ... the new "Front Page" on Fox.... They almost merge in your mind as one long investigative report whose assertive (pushy?) correspondents are forever getting the goods on scam artists, bureaucratic bullies, and assorted power-abusers.

And new ones keep coming: "Eye to Eye With Connie Chung" recently bowed on CBS. NBC has put a new magazine show into its fall lineup (working title: "NBC News Magazine").

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People who are curious why these and other news-"reality" programs with feisty formats are proliferating at such a rate should have a look at the A.C. Nielsen Co.'s weekly list of top-rated network programs. On the most recent list (for the week ending July 11), ABC's "PrimeTime Live" was the fourth-most-watched show on network TV, ABC's "20/20" was fifth, "48 Hours" on CBS the ninth (tied with NBC's "Seinfeld"), and "Dateline NBC" was 11th.

In other words, these let's-catch'em-red-handed exposes are pulling in viewers - big time. They are far ahead of the great majority of last season's 135 regularly scheduled prime-time shows - the sitcoms, specials, miniseries. And the granddaddy of the genre - the long-reigning ratings champion - is CBS's "60 Minutes," which ranked second during the week just cited.

This September it will mark its 25th season on TV (an astonishing datum by itself), and it may well be the medium's most remarkable and enduring ratings success in any category. It was in first place among prime-time programs this past season, for the previous season, and for two other seasons during its tenure. It has made it to near the top for an incredible 16 seasons and is TV's only top-rated show in three separate decades.

"60 Minutes" - and the genre it spearheads - succeed despite the drumbeat of complaints I hear from a variety of viewers about the aggressive attitude of its correspondents, the one-sidedness of some stories, the excesses of crews who take cameras to office doors or dog the footsteps of subjects as they flee to their cars.

We're not talking here about "Hard Copy" or other opportunistic derivatives. People resent even the mainstream investigative programs because, for one thing, the shows don't know when to stop. They'll secretly videotape some appliance repair man cheating, and then the reporters - efficient, public-spirited, and merciless - will confront him. He'll stammer, try to defend himself. His act is not to be excused, of course, but what's the guy supposed to do, get on his knees before the camera and ask forgiven ess? The journalistic pursuit has become an end in itself. The correspondents are on the cutting edge of a programming bonanza and are not about to let up until the ratings start falling.

But the ratings don't fall. They rise, overriding the viewer-resentment factor, because to many people they are the main chance against what Hamlet called "the insolence of office," the arrogant official, the unremorseful swindler. The bureaucrat has all the power of position. The viewers have only this reporter (their surrogate), mike in hand, with a minute or so to break through the stonewall of complacency or hostility that everyone has encountered so often in daily life. Viewers may not want to chall enge directly the tough scam artists of the world, but they can cheer Mike Wallace as he does so on "60 Minutes."

Mr. Wallace and his colleagues are maverick ombudsmen, firing on richly deserved targets of opportunity. They are the warriors of the investigative campaigns, and as such you don't really expect them to be "balanced" during moments of confrontation. The officials they're dealing with eat balance for breakfast. They count on it in their adversaries to get away with their misdeeds. How many times have we heard of organizational abuses that stopped only after they were publicized in an "unbalanced" probe by

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one of these shows, perhaps one that was conducted with obnoxious intrusiveness and exaggeration? Would "balance" have brought the culprits around?

As long as these shows succeed in making viewers feel that their own grievances are thus being vicariously redressed - however outrageously at times - the format will probably keep getting the kind of ratings it needs to survive.

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