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Networks defend interviews with stars of network sitcoms

CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace profiles Murphy Brown star Candice Bergen tonight. Her sitcom airs its final episode on CBS May 18.

Next week, Diane Sawyer of ABC's PrimeTime Live will interview Ellen DeGeneres, who is angry that ABC canceled her show. The last Ellen airs May 13.

And Katie Couric interviews Jerry Seinfeld on Dateline NBC May 12, two nights before NBC airs the final Seinfeld.

All the interviews and final shows air during a "sweeps" period when TV ratings are monitored closely to set advertising rates.

"This is undermining the credibility of all TV news. People are beginning to see the news as an entertainment medium instead of an information medium," said Danny Schechter, author of The More You Watch, the Less You Know, a book about TV news.

Business pressures are overriding journalistic considerations, he said.

Sawyer interviewed DeGeneres on PrimeTime Live last year when the comedian came out as a lesbian, but this week's interview is likely to be more contentious.

DeGeneres complained that ABC canceled Ellen because of unhappiness over gay-themed story lines. Sawyer will also interview ABC president Robert Iger.

ABC News would probably be more vulnerable to criticism if it did not cover the story about Ellen, news division spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said.

"We think Ellen is a news story and I don't think anyone would argue with us," she said. "Frankly, there are a lot of people at this network who would prefer that we would not do it."

60 Minutes talks to Bergen because "it's a good story," executive producer Don Hewitt said. "We should have done it a long time ago."

Hewitt said he wasn't aware that it was a sweeps month. 60 Minutes was criticized in February, also a sweeps month, for a piece on religious content of TV shows that focused on CBS' Touched By an Angel.

Hewitt, who pointed out that 60 Minutes has profiled Seinfeld, said CBS Entertainment executives know not to pressure his show to favor its stars.

"We rise above that," he said. "We hear that all the time, and we laugh about it, because we never do that. You could never maintain 20 years in the Top 10 by playing silly games."

Seinfeld doesn't need hype from Dateline NBC to win viewers, said David Corvo, NBC News vice president. He argued that all three interviews were legitimate news stories.

"We would have talked to Ellen and Candice, but they turned us down," Corvo said. "I would be shocked if CBS and ABC did not go after Seinfeld."

A company that monitors the content of news shows said none exclusively promotes its own network. CBS newsmagazines have done stories on CBS personalities Fran Drescher and Martha Stewart, but they've also covered Seinfeld, HBO's Chris Rock and the dancing baby on Fox's Ally McBeal.

"The selection of celebrities and show topics are not so unbalanced that it makes it easy to point the finger at anyone," said Russ Ptacek, president of News TV Corp., in Lawrence, Kan.