'Rock Center': Serving Hard News, But Will It Sell?

Originally published on October 31, 2011 8:44 pm

At 10 p.m. on Monday, NBC anchor Brian Williams will do something that hasn't been done in nearly 20 years: launch a new network TV newsmagazine.

Hosted live from NBC's Rockefeller Center headquarters — thus the name, Rock Center — it's an ambitious attempt to showcase both Williams' serious news skills and his signature dry wit. And if it's going to succeed, he and NBC may have to reinvent the newsmagazine for a new age.

That's because in today's TV universe, most prime-time newsmagazines (60 Minutes usually excepted) are generally concerned with less highbrow fare. Think Dateline's To Catch A Predator, or Barbara Walters' 20/20 interview with Mariah Carey and her new twin babies. The latter was the highest-rated program on the night of Oct. 21.

NBC executives says Rock Center will tackle heavier topics. Early ads for the show focused on a roster of high-profile correspondents — Ted Koppel, Kate Snow, Harry Smith.

Which makes NBC's move a kind of back to the future trip — a return to the strategies of the mid-1990s, when the networks discovered that newsmagazines were cheaper to make than hourlong dramas. Before long, there were 10 hours of them sprinkled across prime time, and anchor stars such as Katie Couric, Connie Chung and Diane Sawyer had their own showcase series.

But the rush for sensation blended entertainment and news reporting so much — ABC promoted Turning Point as "a new kind of storytelling so dramatic ... it feels like a movie" -- that critics feared the new crop of shows might sink the standards of network TV news altogether.

But the newsmagazines of the '90s were so profitable that there was only one thing that stop them: "reality" television. American Idol, Survivor, Big Brother; no writers, no professional actors, lots of young viewers. That's an even better moneymaking formula.

In 2009, NBC tried another shot at cheap 10 p.m. programming when it moved Jay Leno to that slot. (We all know how that turned out.)

Now Rock Center is targeting that sweet spot, as a low-cost, easily duplicated program that leads seamlessly to affiliates' local newscasts. Early reports indicate Monday's show will cover immigration, Middle East politics and employment; important stuff for sure. But time and the competition for viewers have reduced more than one newsmagazine to turn to true-crime stories and the latest celebrity revelation.

If Williams and Rock Center want to escape that trap, they're going to have to figure out how do something I'm not sure is possible: lure prime-time audiences with serious news.

Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK. At 10 o'clock tonight, NBC anchor Brian Williams will do something that used to happen on TV all the time but hasn't happened in some years. He will begin a brand new primetime network TV newsmagazine. It's called "Rock Center," because it's live from NBC's Rockefeller Center headquarters in Manhattan. TV critic Eric Deggans says it's going to be tough to sell serious news in primetime.

ERIC DEGGANS: In today's television universe, this is what makes a successful TV newsmagazine.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "20/20")

BARBARA WALTERS: You are about to meet them for the very first time.

DEGGANS: That was part of Barbara Walters' interview with pop diva Mariah Carey and her new twin babies on ABC's "20/20" a week and a half ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "20/20")

WALTERS: Look. They're so good. And they're all dressed up.

MARIAH CAREY: They are.

DEGGANS: And it became the highest rated program of the night. This is the tide Brian Williams is swimming against. Aside from "60 Minutes," recent primetime network newsmagazines are often a repository for, shall we say, less highbrow fare.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOWS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: She was once the wild woman of the fashion world, Addicted to anabolic steroids.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Can you predict your child's in danger before it happens?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: A mother says goodbye to her son.

DEGGANS: NBC executives insist "Rock Center" is going another way. Early ads for the show focused on a roster of high profile correspondents plucked from other networks' ranks.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV ADVERTISEMENT)

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Koppel.

TED KOPPEL: Williams.

WILLIAMS: Welcome aboard.

Kate Snow.

KATE SNOW: Brian.

WILLIAMS: Seth Meyers, fake news anchor. Not one of ours.

DEGGANS: Cool as it is to see Williams' deft wit on display - and he'll likely deploy it a lot introducing stories live on "Rock Center" - it might've been better to see ads on the actual stories they're covering.

NBC's move is a trip back to the future - the mid 1990s, actually - when the networks discovered newsmagazines were cheaper to make than hour-long dramas. Before long, there were 10 hours of them sprinkled across primetime. Back then, anchor stars such as Connie Chung, Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric had their own showcase series.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOWS, "TURNING POINT" AND "PRIMETIME")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: From ABC News, "Turning Point."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: This is "Primetime."

DEGGANS: But the rush for sensation blended entertainment and news reporting so much, critics feared they might sink the standards of network TV news altogether. These newsmagazines were so profitable, in fact, only one thing could stop them.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN IDOL")

RYAN SEACREST: This is your show and this is "American Idol." Let's go.

DEGGANS: Turns out, unscripted, so-called reality TV shows such as "American Idol" and "Survivor" have an even better moneymaking formula: no writers, no professional actors and lots of young viewers.

NBC tried another shot at inexpensive 10 P.M. programming, something a certain hugely-jawed stand up comic never quite pulled off.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JAY LENO SHOW")

JAY LENO: It's Katie Couric's birthday today.

KEVIN EUBANKS: Oh, wonderful.

LENO: And, you know, she left NBC for another network. I've got to give her a call, see how that's working out.

DEGGANS: We all know how that turned out for Jay Leno. Now "Rock Center" may cover the same ground - as a cheaper, easily duplicated program that leads seamlessly to affiliates' local newscasts.

Early reports indicate tonight's show will cover immigration, Middle East politics and employment - important stuff for sure, but hardly the impactful journalism of Mariah Carey's twins.

It's a sobering lesson. Eventually, time and the competition for viewers reduced newsmagazines with lofty goals to true crime stories and the latest celebrity revelation. If Brian Williams and "Rock Center" can't find compelling ways to escape that trap, they'll have to do something I'm not sure is possible - lure primetime audiences with serious news.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times, and you hear him right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.