NEW YORK — When Neal Shapiro left a producing job on "PrimeTime Live" to become executive producer of "Dateline NBC," some of his colleagues at ABC News reacted as if he were trading a coach seat on the Concorde for a first-class ticket on the Titanic.
"People at ABC News said I was crazy, that nobody could make a success of themselves at NBC News," Shapiro recalls.
When Shapiro came to "Dateline NBC" in March, 1993, the network was still reeling from the disclosure a month earlier that "Dateline" producers had staged a fiery crash for a report about General Motors pickup trucks. Three "Dateline" producers and the president of NBC News resigned in the wake of the highly publicized incident, and morale at NBC News was very low.
This week, 18 months later, "Dateline NBC" becomes the first major network TV newsmagazine to air three nights a week in prime time--with broadcasts Tuesdays at 10 p.m., Wednesdays at 9 p.m. and Fridays at 9 p.m. (although this week it will be at 8 p.m.). With Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips as the principal anchors, "Dateline NBC" will use Tom Brokaw, Bryant Gumbel, Katie Couric, Maria Shriver and other NBC News talent to report stories and, occasionally, to help with anchoring duties.
The three-nights-a-week format, Shapiro said, "will allow us to jump on the news and to report both features and investigative stories across the week. It's an exciting opportunity to try new things with the newsmagazine format."
The turnaround in the fortunes of "Dateline NBC" is considered the most visible sign of a resurgence at NBC News in recent months. Pauley gives credit to Shapiro and Andrew Lack, the former CBS News producer who was named president of the news division after Michael Gartner stepped down.
"Neal inherited a group that was shell-shocked, although we were continuing to put a show on every week," she said. "We got more resources under Andy Lack, and, over time, we began doing a very credible broadcast."
Actually, the ratings for "Dateline NBC" never took a serious dip, despite all the negative publicity.
"I think that viewers understood that the GM story was an isolated incident," Shapiro said. "People lost their jobs over it. As we produced a better program, I think they've given us a chance and liked what we're doing."
Indeed, when "Dateline" expanded this past summer from one night a week to two, the second installment on Thursday nights beat "PrimeTime Live" in nine of 11 head-to-head matchups.
"NBC News today is considered a player in network news in a way that it was not a year ago," said one ABC News producer. " 'Dateline' has resources and staff, and having three hours a week is going to increase the level of competition among newsmagazines."
Shapiro, 37, an award-winning producer for hard-news and investigative pieces on "PrimeTime Live," said that "Dateline" will use its franchise for a variety of stories, from breaking news to multi-part investigations. The first such investigation--on the safety of the U.S. water supply--will air over several nights this week, and others are in the works.
Like other network newsmagazines, "Dateline" will give heavy coverage to the O.J. Simpson story. Couric will do an interview this week with Simpson's adult children, Arnelle and Jason, and Phillips will be "sub-anchoring" the program from Los Angeles, offering brief updates or longer pieces on the issues raised by the trial.
The format also may accommodate segments of varying length, such as a recent "Dateline" that devoted nearly a full hour one night to re-creating in documentary-style fashion the ill-fated mission of U.S. soldiers who died in Somalia. Shapiro also has added lighter features to "Dateline," from a department on popular culture called "State of the Art" to viewer feedback via FAX and E-mail.
Producers at other networks say that having three installments a week will give "Dateline" some advantage in booking celebrity guests and newsmakers. This summer, when "Dateline" was airing twice a week, Pauley landed an interview with Michael Fay, the young man who was caned in Singapore, and Fay's attorney was quoted as saying that one factor in his decision to talk to "Dateline" was that the interview would be aired in two parts.
Shapiro acknowledged the potential advantage, but he said that "the news value of the story," not the demands of the newsmaker, will determine the play an interview gets.
Encouraged by "Dateline's" performance over the summer, Lack--who had raised the idea of "stripping" a newsmagazine across prime time when he became president of NBC News last year--made the decision to repackage the "Now" newsmagazine as a third night of "Dateline." The move "offers the advantage of having all of the anchors working together on one program, rather than competing against each other for stories on competing newsmagazines," he explained.
"We certainly feel under pressure to succeed," Lack said, "but NBC has given us a strong commitment of hours and, while I don't think we'd be on the air if we have two lousy seasons, I think everyone understands that newsmagazines traditionally take time to grow."
But even if "Dateline" is not an immediate success in the new format, said Bill Croasdale, president of network buying for Western Media International, "it already is doing well for the network because it is cheaper to produce than entertainment programming, and the three hours are programming that NBC owns itself."