Twenty years ago, the hottest genre in network television wasn't sitcoms, dramas or reality shows — it was newsmagazines. CBS's 60 Minutes was the number-one show. ABC had Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs scoring big ratings on 20/20 and signed Diane Sawyer for Primetime. NBC had the most difficult time getting a newsmagazine off the ground until it launched Dateline NBC on March 31, 1992 after trying and failing with 17 other shows.
Over the next 20 years, Dateline served as the most durable and versatile newsmagazine, filling as many as five hours per week on NBC's prime time schedule. It celebrates its 20th anniversary tonight with a special hour that looks back at how the program served as a big tent where viewers could find all kinds of stories — true crime mysteries, courtroom dramas, hidden camera investigations, consumer alerts, celebrity interviews and serious examinations of social issues. Anchor Lester Holt says they all have one common characteristic. "It's the overall voice of the show," he says. "You hear it and you stop. You know you're going to get a well-told story."
The anniversary celebration includes the return of original Dateline co-anchor Jane Pauley, who interviews Michael J. Fox about how Parkinson's disease has changed his life. Tom Brokaw revisits the astonishing story of Aron Ralston, the rock climber who amputated his own arm to save his life. Matt Lauer updates his 2008 report about two families affected by the mistaken identity that occurred after a fatal car accident. Ann Curry checks in — again — with the McCaughey septuplets.
The special will not recount a dark moment that came early in Dateline's history. In the fall of 1992, the program used incendiary devices to demonstrate how General Motors trucks were exploding on impact due to a faulty fuel tank design. It cost two producers their jobs and brought down an NBC News president. But Dateline survived the debacle and has been reliable ever since, even while testing the boundaries of investigative TV journalism.
The special will reprise the show's reputation for what Holt calls "catching bad actors in the act" with hidden cameras — the most memorable being Chris Hansen's "To Catch A Predator" series which alerted America to the danger of sexual predators on the Internet. "It was one of those crimes you heard about and knew it was out there, but you couldn't quite picture this really happening," says Holt. "Here it was exposed in a way that you're on the edge of your seat watching with your jaw dropping that this was really taking place. It was compelling TV and to this day when Chris walks past me I'm afraid he's going to say, 'Take a seat.'"
Dateline NBC: 20th Anniversary Special airs Tuesday at 10/9c on NBC.