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No Slow News Days Here

As 'Dateline NBC' embarks on an unprecedented expansion, the pressure is on to produce.

October 11, 1998|Robert Strauss | Robert Strauss is a frequent contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — Roberta Oster is crashing. It's Friday afternoon and the sun is bathing New York outside her Rockefeller Center window. She should be thinking about the weekend and its pleasures, but there's a story out in Salt Lake City, and her employer, "Dateline NBC," wants it sooner than later. So never mind that Oster, one of "Dateline's" producers, is already working on one story and another profile she's proposed. Never mind the Indian summer Manhattan sun. Never mind that Utah is not exactly where she planned on spending Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. There are camera crews to find; interviews to schedule; assistant producers to help and be helped by; files to read.

"Gotta just forget about everything else," she says breathlessly to a visitor spending a week with the "Dateline" staff. "Neal is the greatest, but there is nothing done leisurely here. It's just not a relaxed newsmagazine."

"We probably do more crashes than any other news show," says Neal Shapiro, "Dateline's" executive producer, using the TV news insider's term for the drop-everything-and-get-it-done-preferably-yesterday story.

"We're on five nights a week now, so as things keep happening, there are stories you want to jump on."

Los Angeles Times Sunday October 18, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Page 87 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong sport--NBC's news division is being asked to tighten its budget in part to offset huge outlays by the network for the Olympics and professional basketball, not for football, as was incorrectly stated in last Sunday's cover story on "Dateline NBC."

When "Dateline NBC" premiered on March 31, 1992, there were only four other hours of newsmagazines on network prime-time TV, and none of them were on NBC. Now there are 11 hours, with two more scheduled to arrive in the winter, and five of them are named "Dateline NBC."

No one has ever before produced five hours of prime-time network programming a week: not Edward R. Murrow, the deity of network news; not Steven Bochco or David Kelley or even Aaron Spelling. Even when there were 31 westerns on during the 1958-59 prime-time schedule, no one honchoed five of them. But Shapiro is now producing an original hour of "Dateline" on Sunday, on Monday, on Tuesday, on Wednesday and on Friday.

Critics have skewered "Dateline" for filling those hours with lightweight fare and near-tabloidy crime stories. While it is a charge that Shapiro and his staff take seriously, they claim that they are doing a different kind of prime-time newsmagazine, one that mirrors something like Time or Newsweek, with a panoply of stories from the serious to the offbeat. And they believe that is the future of news in prime time.

The proliferation of prime-time newsmagazines on all the networks has caused consternation and derision in some quarters, joy and admiration in others. By putting on a newsmagazine five nights a week, NBC has put itself in the cross hairs of the critics' shotguns.

"I cannot imagine that 'Dateline' will have enormous ratings week after week," says Bryce Nelson, professor of journalism at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication. "Even when '60 Minutes' was on alone, it was hard to get three good magazine stories a week. If you try to do this every night, it's going to be very hard to get stories with content."

When network prime-time ratings started slipping precipitously in the 1990s, newsmagazines started looking better to schedule-makers. They cost less to produce than entertainment programs. With few exceptions, they had fresh programming every week, even through the summer. Rarely did they have smash ratings, but with the exception of shows like ABC's "Day One" and the Bryant Gumbel vehicle "Private Eye," rarely, too, were they Nielsen bombs. They even had stars, maybe none as dark and brooding as George Clooney or as sprightly as Jenna Elfman, but surely Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer and Jane Pauley and Mike Wallace were as identifiable as anyone else in prime time.

But news was to be held to a higher standard than mediocre sitcoms and women-in-jeopardy telemovies, critics said. More might well mean less, at least when it came to quality.

"I don't think [lack of quality] is in the viewers' minds," Shapiro says. "In every time period we have gone into, we have done better than the preceding program. I personally don't think there is something wrong with one more hour of 'Dateline' and one less hour of 'America's Stupidest Videos.' We, as American people, haven't lost anything."

There is little that Heather Vincent is telling Shapiro this morning that doesn't give him some sort of news rush. Vincent, "Dateline's" senior producer in charge of bookings, holds court for the early part of the daily 9:30 a.m. meetings of the show's senior staff.

The big news of this day is President Clinton's meetings with Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu, the final assault on the major-league home-run record by Mark McGwire and the continued press of Hurricane Georges through the South, but Shapiro is more impressed with Vincent's combing of the wires and newspapers for the odd or interesting.

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