The Biz: NBC's Newsmag Gamble
Constructing the new multimillion-dollar studio for NBC's upcoming newsmagazine show Rock Center With Brian Williams has been a TV version of an archaeological dig. "We've found a piece of the set from the soap opera The Doctors," says Williams. "And an old applause sign from when they did live TV there."
Uncovering remnants of the past in the Rockefeller Center location seems fitting, as Williams' newsmagazine sounds like a bit of a throwback as well. Rock Center (expected to be the first replacement on the schedule when one of NBC's new fall shows falters) will have two or three ambitious, deeply reported stories each hour, following the model of 60 Minutes. NBC News even enlisted former 60 Minutes producer Rome Hartman to put together a team that shares that show's sensibility. "He's assembled an army," says Williams, who will anchor the live program while remaining at NBC Nightly News. "In the world of producers and correspondents, this is going to be Cooperstown." Meredith Vieira, a highly regarded 60 Minutes correspondent before her years on The View and Today, has signed on to the new program, along with CBS News veteran Harry Smith.
The odds of succeeding with any newsmagazine are tough in the age of instant information on cable, the Internet and smartphones. No network has launched a new one since CBS tried Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel in 1997. The once-prominent genre has shriveled, replaced largely by reality programs that typically attract younger audiences who are more appealing to advertisers. Most of the surviving newsmagazines, such as NBC's own Dateline, depend on true-crime stories, hidden-camera investigations and tabloid-worthy interviews to remain competitive.
Steve Burke, CEO of NBCUniversal, ignored those trends and made finding a high-class platform for Williams and the news division one of his first orders of business when he took over earlier this year. Burke is a fan of the anchor and wanted to provide him with a bigger showcase than the evening news.
NBC is also hoping the ratings for Rock Center, which has a three-year commitment from the network, will be respectable enough to keep the lights on in prime time as NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt tries to replenish the schedule with scripted hits. That may not be easy for a serious newsmagazine. "There is no doubt in my mind they will produce an excellent show," says a news producer at a competing network. "But 60 Minutes has an established relationship with its viewers. I'm not sure [viewers] need another one."
Still, Williams can be an entertaining guy, as evidenced by his 30 Rock and late-night comedy show appearances and acclaimed hosting gig on Saturday Night Live. So while Rock Center aims to be a serious journalistic endeavor, viewers will see a lighter side. "Brian has a lot of range and we mean to give him a chance to show that range off, as it makes sense," says Hartman. Even the set, also the new home of NBC Nightly News, has been designed with his personality in mind. "We've added a lot of wood to give it a warmer, homey feel," explains NBC News creative director Marc Greenstein.
While Rock Center is intended to be appointment viewing, the producers plan to make some of the show's pieces available on iPads before they air. They will also cover live breaking news when necessary. How big will a story need to be for Rock Center to change plans on the night it airs? "If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans for your new newsmagazine," jokes Williams. "So check back with me."
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