NEW YORK -- The promos at the top of the show have a breathless quality:

"Was sex with children part of this group's teachings?"

"Coming up: One family's desperate search for their daughter."

"Herman and Druie Dutton, ages 15 and 12, shot and killed their father."

"How would you feel about sharing your spouse?"

"They're armed and dangerous, and they could come into your home and take you away."

The program is called "Now," and everything about it -- from the quick camera cuts to the urgent background music to the soothing presence of Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric -- is designed to keep you from switching channels. "Now" is NBC's seven-month-old entry in the television magazine sweepstakes, and while it is a news division product, everyone is keenly aware that much of the competition is cranked out by Hollywood's image factories.

"These stories have to have an element of drama," says Jeff Zucker, the show's 28-year-old executive producer. "They play in prime time, and we can't forget that. The newsmagazines are part news, part entertainment."

Every show needs an identity, and "Now" leans heavily on tales of crime and violence, leavened by pieces involving celebrities, sex and television itself. It is a formula made successful by such syndicated shows as "Hard Copy," but since this is network television, even the seamiest stories must be given a high-minded gloss.

The problem for Zucker as he pursues the most gruesome crimes and the hottest celebs is that the magazine shows are all tripping over one another. CBS has the No. 1-rated "60 Minutes," the granddaddy of them all, along with "48 Hours" and "Eye to Eye With Connie Chung." Fox has "Front Page." ABC has "PrimeTime Live," "20/20," "Day One" and "Turning Point."

"The lineage of these newscasts is from the talk shows and the tabloid programs," says Jon Katz, Rolling Stone's media critic. "If you

closed your eyes and listened to 'Inside Edition,' you could not tell the difference. They're all about divorced dads and crime and gore and how to lose weight. They do all this fake investigative reporting and these tawdry feature stories. It's impossible to tell one from the other."

Built around the box office appeal of celebrity anchors, these programs have become prime vehicles for such megastars as Diane Sawyer, Dan Rather, Chung, Barbara Walters and Jane Pauley. When Sawyer (who defected from "60 Minutes") re-signed with ABC in a deal worth up to $7 million, she was given the chance to co-anchor a second show, "Turning Point," which debuted last week with Sawyer interviewing Charles Manson and his followers.

"Now" was born amid the rubble of another NBC magazine show. It was originally to be called "Prime Story," with Fred Francis, Faith Daniels and Mike Schneider as rotating anchors. But that was before the network's credibility exploded last year when "Dateline NBC" acknowledged staging the fiery crash of a General Motors pickup truck.

The blunder cost NBC News President Michael Gartner his job. He was replaced by former CBS producer Andrew Lack, who slammed the brakes on "Prime Story" and installed Brokaw and Couric as the marquee attractions. He also brought in Zucker, the Wunderkind producer of "Today," and gave him two months to throw the program together.

"It was important that we not have another failure on the air," says Brokaw, recalling NBC's long history of magazine flops. "The more the news division can get on the air and deal with nonfiction programming, the better off we are. It's healthy for our survival."

Journalism by the Numbers

Jeff Zucker is mulling over the Whitewater affair.

"It's just so boring," he says.

A slightly built, tightly wound man with a receding fringe of frizzy hair, Zucker is huddling with nine senior staffers here at 30 Rock. He is trying to decide whether the scandal enveloping the White House can be made into a suitably dramatic prime-time segment.

"Is there anything to do on the Hillary thing?" Zucker asks. "We should do the Rose Law Firm. This is 'The Firm,' and it should be played off the movie. They all have fancy houses and fancy cars. I want this to be 'The Firm.' Got it?"

Other suggestions fill the air. "You could do a cat fight," says Managing Editor Paul Greenberg. "Sally Quinn will talk about it, or the Thomasons will defend her. But you wouldn't be advancing it, just playing off it."

The conversation turns to other potential interview subjects -- Shere Hite, Louis Farrakhan, Chevy Chase -- but soon drifts back to Whitewater.

"It's on the cover of Newsweek and no one knows what it is," says senior producer Beth O'Connell.

"I don't even understand it," Zucker says. The lesson is clear: Complicated Washington stories don't make good television. ("Nobody cares about Bernie Nussbaum," Zucker says.)

The search goes on. It is Monday morning, March 7, and Zucker has a tentative lineup for the Wednesday night show: A Scottish boy shot to death in Texas ("It's a mysterious story," he says). A man who has admitting abusing children in five states ("A cross-country child molester"). A man suing the Globe supermarket tabloid for accusing him of being Robert Kennedy's real killer. And a Couric piece on the TV hit "Baywatch," with plenty of shots of jiggling, bikini-clad girls and barrel-chested beach boys.

"Now" made its debut last August and has averaged a respectable 16 percent share of the audience, about half that of the competing ABC comedy "Home Improvement" (the No. 2-rated show in the nation, which is so formidable that Zucker schedules his best stories after it ends at 9:30). "Now," the 50th-rated show overall, is sandwiched between the NBC crime shows "Unsolved Mysteries" and "Law & Order," and Zucker knows he cannot lose that audience.

It's hardly a coincidence, then, that the "Now" formula is heavy on emotion-packed tales.

There is usually a lurid crime story: "Now" has done the Menendez brothers parent-killing trial (twice); the brutal murder of two teenage girls in Canada; the Long Island Rail Road shooting; the mailing of pipe bombs to scientists; and the murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas.

There is often a celebrity story: pieces on Bette Midler and Conan O'Brien and Robert De Niro and Caroline Kennedy and Ann-Margret and Robin Williams and Michael Keaton and Michael Jordan.

And there is a fascination with tabloid fare, from five men accused of forcing sex on a drunken woman to five pieces on the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan soap opera (including "exclusive home videos of Tonya" and "Tonya and Jeff's troubled relationship"). "Now" has also aired the only network interview with John Bobbitt (after Lorena did "20/20").

"They asked me to interview John Wayne Bobbitt and I said I'd rather not," says correspondent Francis. "Interviewing John Wayne Bobbitt wasn't my idea of journalism, even magazine journalism. That's the one story on this show that I wish we hadn't done."

Lawrence Grossman, a former president of NBC News and PBS, says the network magazines practice "a sob sister kind of journalism. It's mostly heartthrob, good guy/bad guy stories. What's missing is hard-edged stories about the economy, housing, the environment or health care."

"Now" has also done some noteworthy reporting. Brokaw conducted a touching interview with a 13-year-old in the Chicago ghetto whose mother, worried about his safety, rarely allows him to leave the house. Francis reported on a mysterious illness afflicting many Persian Gulf War veterans. Couric did a moving piece on a 45-year-old woman killed days after she became a Los Angeles cop. Correspondent Mike Boettcher did the first major television piece on government radiation experiments in the 1940s after the Albuquerque Tribune broke the story.

Brokaw calls "Now" a "work in progress." The program has mostly abandoned the live interviews it aired early on but still tries to crash such late-breaking stories as the Southern California earthquake. "I'd like to do more of the serious issues," Brokaw says.

The economics of the genre are simple. Producing an hour of news costs about $500,000, roughly one-third to one-half the cost of buying a sitcom or drama. So even a magazine show with modest ratings can turn a decent profit.

Lack is unconcerned about the cluttered magazine field. "I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel here," he says. "If I have good stories, I don't care if there are 18 magazine shows on. The audience clearly wants more of this stuff."

Divining just what viewers want is a constant obsession. At the Monday staff meeting, Zucker suggested doing a piece on "sex after 60" or "the joy of getting older," conscious of the fact that the "Now" audience is skewed toward the graying end of the spectrum.

Francis says three-quarters of his story ideas are turned down, such as a proposed piece on narcotics smuggling from Mexico in the wake of the NAFTA agreement. "My guess is they thought it was dull," he says.

In a report criticizing television news for focusing so heavily on crime, Francis had to acknowledge that "Now" had done 39 of its 89 stories on crime and violence.

"We're all conflicted by this," Brokaw told viewers. "When people say we do it only for the ratings, that's not entirely true, but at the same time we can't go out of business."

"Let's face it," said Couric, "the ratings have a lot to do with it."

A defensive tone creeps into Zucker's voice as he talks about the blood-and-guts emphasis. "It's not something I'm overjoyed about," he says. "Everyone's now doing these violent stories and it's become a staple of the newsmagazines. We're doing well and it's worked for us."

Any lingering doubt about the importance of Nielsen numbers is dispelled by a sheet of paper on Zucker's desk. It charts the show's minute-by-minute ratings in graph form, with the line dipping up and down as viewers go channel-surfing.

"When I looked at the minute-by-minute stuff on Tonya, it went up a lot," Zucker says. "That's how we knew to keep doing it."

Star Turns

Jamel Oeser-Sweat is ushered into Zucker's office. The 17-year-old youth from the Lower East Side was recently featured on the front page of the New York Times after being named a finalist for a Westinghouse science scholarship. Both "Now" and "PrimeTime Live" are after him.

Oeser-Sweat is here to meet with Brokaw, but there's been a mix-up and Brokaw is out of town. Zucker is trying to make amends.

"I apologize about Tom's schedule," Zucker tells the youth. "I know you guys would have hit it off. Your story will be very close to his heart." (Despite the snafu, he later agrees to the Brokaw interview.)

The competition is so fierce that all the magazine shows use their stars to try to land the big interview. Katie Couric tried to snag Tonya Harding but lost out to Connie Chung, who prevailed by camping out in Portland, Ore., for 10 days.

"It was just ridiculous," Couric says. "I was talking to her attorneys two or three times a day and on weekends. It just started to drive me crazy... . It's so out of control." To top it off, Couric tried to get Nancy Kerrigan but was scooped by her own network, losing out to Jane Pauley and "Dateline."

Brokaw scored an interview with Randy Weaver, a white supremacist whose wife and son were killed by federal agents, because he knew Weaver's attorney, Gerry Spence. "Connie Chung's producer took the motel room above his," Brokaw says. "Everyone wanted that one, including Mike Wallace."

While the program has 70 staffers, Brokaw and Couric are "Now." They open and close each show chatting on a couch. Brokaw, 54, lends a certain gravitas, while Couric, 37, provides her patented vivaciousness. Producers lobby to have their stories done by one of the co-anchors.

"The show is always better when Tom and Katie are the stars," Zucker says. "People know Tom and Katie. People can relate to Tom and Katie."

But with Brokaw anchoring "NBC Nightly News" and Couric holding forth at "Today" (and guarding her time with her 2 1/2-year-old daughter), "Now" becomes a perpetual juggling act. Brokaw does one major piece every three weeks and Couric one every other week, with much of the spade work done by producers and researchers.

"I feel that I'm more than just dropped in," Couric says. "I do the key interviews when I'm working on a piece. But I wish I could come up with the story, that I could make all the calls booking the interviews... . I didn't want to be just fronting the show, saying 'Here's Fred Francis' and reading a lead-in."

Zillion-dollar anchors have become such a dominant presence on magazine shows that their interviews are a certified event: stars hanging out with stars. When Brokaw visited Ted Turner and Jane Fonda at their Montana ranch, part of the segment dealt with Tom 'n' Ted going trout fishing. When Couric profiled Michael Keaton, they flirted by his back-yard swimming pool. "Would you like to play Batman with me?" she asked, giggling.

Lack argued against doing pieces on Keaton and Bette Midler and Robin Williams and Liam Neeson, touted on the show as "Hollywood's latest hunk." The minute-by-minute ratings plunged during the Neeson segment.

"The audience has been thrown so much celebrity profile junk that their interest in that material has diminished," Lack says. But, he says, "I've tried to shut up and let {the show's producers} make their own mistakes."

For Francis, NBC's former Pentagon reporter, the transition to magazine journalism has been both liberating and unsettling. "I'm a personality in the story," he says. While doing a piece on elderly drivers who should be off the road, "I was driving around with this 86-year-old guy and he scared the {expletive} out of me and I told him so on camera. You become a part of the story and tell it in a manner the audience can empathize with."

Freddy Krueger Lives

Jeff Zucker is uncharacteristically quiet, scribbling notes with the phone cradled against his ear.

"Uh-huh," he says every minute or so. "Uh-huh."

Andy Lack is on the line. He has screened the piece on the serial child molester and wants to know why "Now" is doing it.

Soon Zucker is screening the tape on one of his four television sets with correspondent Dennis Murphy and producer Debbie Schooley.

"Debbie, what would you say the thesis of this story is?" Zucker asks.

"That things can happen that you're not aware of, especially in small towns where people leave their doors unlocked," she says.

Murphy offers a more colorful synopsis: "I think it's Freddy Krueger meets the Saturday Evening Post."

Zucker is not satisfied. Lack, he says, "just wants to know what the intellectual light is at the end of the tunnel."

Zucker's conclusion: "Maybe it's too underwritten. The way we write the intro will be key."

After further tinkering, the child molester story is finally ready on Wednesday. The narration begins with ominous music as a tight shot of the handcuffed villain dissolves into children frolicking on a playground:

"Does this man scare you? He should. A child molester crisscrosses the country for young victims. Tonight, children's nightmares: Sometimes they are real."

Half an hour before air time, a last-minute piece is added to the show. That morning, Zucker learned that Kimberly Mays, the teenager who went to court to divorce her biological parents, had suddenly moved in with them. Although "Now" has nothing new, Zucker recycles old footage from Couric's "Today" interview with the teenager. For added impact, he tosses in a scene from the TV movie "Switched at Birth" in which Kimberly's father tells her he is not her biological dad.

The day after the broadcast, Zucker and his staff debate whether the program was a bit on the seamy side.

"I feel okay about the show, but I don't think it was one of our best," he says. "I wish there had been a piece that was a little more intellectually satisfying. My job is to juggle and balance it. Sometimes I do a better job than others."