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

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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.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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