It's difficult to be critical of Brian Williams' new primetime magazine show which debuted this week on NBC: Rock Center has stated only noble intentions in the swampy landscape of broadcast news.
The new Comcast executive team has committed two years for building what they hope will be an important, in-depth news show to rival 60 Minutes. That said, Rock's launch needed some paper and scissors. More than anything: stronger news stories for a primetime news magazine.
Where was Brian Williams' lead story?
Given the greatly hyped mission statement of the broadcast, along with the hiring of two newsmen highly identified with competing networks, I wasn't expecting NBC's premiere anchor to "weigh in" with a rambling fluff piece and juvenile sparring with Jon Stewart.
One of the best kept secrets in journalism has been Brian Williams' sharp wit and elevated raconteurial skills. He's definitely the one you want at your dinner party. At 10 p.m. last Monday night, however, the banter was cringe-worthy. But more on that in a moment.
First: Why I Care
There are few who love long form news more than I who, as a young producer at NBC's Tomorrow Show, watched the great David Brinkley get fired from the network's first attempt at weekly primetime news magazine, NBC Magazine which aired opposite CBS' megahit, Dallas.
Eight years later I re-joined NBC for what I was told was the 10th attempt at a news magazine: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow with Maria Shriver, Mary Alice Williams and Chuck Scarborough. That show debuted in August, 1989, at #17 in the Nielsen ratings. Despite some very good reporting on worthy topics such as the My Lai Massacre (yesterday) and emerging dangers in new fertility treatments (today), many of us suspected the show was ill-fated. ("There are no 'tomorrow' stories," the executive producer had offered.)
After just a few months, I jumped at the chance to work for ABC's venture into the primetime news magazine game: Primetime Live with Diane Sawyer and Sam Donaldson, which had debuted the same week.
Primetime Live's first show had been nothing less than a disaster, with a live studio audience invited to "participate" in a discussion of presidential options to free the American hostages in Tehran. But first up was Washington lawyer, Tom Root, who had become the center of his own mystery after falling unconscious at the controls of his Cessna airplane for six hours before plunging into the sea where rescuers discovered a gunshot wound to his stomach.
There was a lot of anchor stumbling. Sam rambled during his intros, Diane introduced a tape from "tonight's ews," that's right, no "n."
Regardless of the rocky start, the talent, the team and the resources that came with the two-year commitment from the legendary Roone Arledge made the sum total of PTL so much greater than its individual parts. And in it's first years, Primetime Live (having quickly dumped the live audience) not only outlasted YTT, it pushed its way towards the top of the Nielsen charts and eventually was the #1 show on Thursday nights, beating out L.A. Law (it's Dallas).
It must have looked so effortless, because then came the flood of more news magazines: NBC's Now (Katie Couric and Tom Brokaw) and Expose (Tom Brokaw and Brian Ross), then finally the Dateline franchise which expanded at its peak to four nights a week.
CBS developed 48 Hours, 60 Minutes II, Connie Chung's Eye to Eye and Bryant Gumbel's Public Eye. To 20/20 and Primetime Live, ABC added Turning Point and Day One.
So few magazine shows survived, although each one began with noble intentions and all were anchored and supported by the top journalists of the day -- which brings us back to Brian Williams and Rock Center.
For what it's worth, here are my notes:
Where was the big Brian Williams story, the one we suspected he's been dying to tackle outside the constraints of his 22-minute Nightly News? The choice of a fluffy story about a scientist trying to figure out a better way for us masses to board a plane, led this viewer to wonder if Williams is secretly interested in a job swap with Matt Lauer when his contract is up.
Williams introduced his piece while sitting in a real airplane seat, a row of three the prop department brought to the new state-of-the-artRock Center news set. It reminded me of a segment on Good Morning America a few years ago, with the same gimmick, after an airline refused to seat an overweight person.
I had already seen the lead segment of Rock promoted on Today by correspondent Harry Smith, sporting a new bow-tie look, who described it as something you'd see on CBS' Sunday Morning show. He was right. That's exactly what I thought after seeing report from a new boom town in North Dakota, Williston, where he said, "the trucks rumble through like modern buffalo, a stampede that can't be stopped."
Rock Center, however, needs to compete in the big leagues now, and that's a whole different animal.
Williston is booming, we learn, because new technology allows for oil to be drilled, or rather flushed out of what is the largest oil field in North America, the size of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut combined and expected to yield 24 billion barrels of oil, according to its (new) billionaire prospector.
Although one town won't lift the 25 million people now identified by the U.S. Census to be living in dire poverty, it was uplifting to hear of an estimated 18,000 jobs unfilled, including 500 jobs for truckers needed right away.
I found the piece truly exciting despite the parts that were over-written ("a boom so big, it's gushing jobs," and "if John Steinbeck were alive today, he'd be writing about ..." George, Phil and Patrick, three men Smith had selected for his story.)
If I were to be so presumptuous, I'd like to imagine Steinbeck writing from a place in Williston we didn't get to see, we just heard about in Smith's tag: the nearly 10,000 "man camps" that have sprung up to house the new American migrant workers who have found new jobs, but no beds.
"Man camps," I wondered, are they as awful as they sound? Does it look like "Occupy Wall Street" only with six feet of snow? Are many high crimes and misdemeanors committed in this new wild west freshly populated with desperate people taking desperate measures.
It turns out the man camps are hardly a secret. I found videos right on YouTube documenting life in makeshift camps, some seemingly pleasant with bunk beds and bookcases, others out of a nightmare -- cramped, metal cylinders that seem better suited for storing grain or manufactured goods than housing people.
All these makeshift villages, of course, are in the middle of nowhere, with strict rules: no women, weapons or alcohol allowed. That doesn't mean alcoholism isn't a raging problem; Williston ranks among the highest in the state, as well as the country.
In the same YouTube video group you can watch a panel discussion among community leaders and addiction experts in Williston, a place where loneliness, long and hard hours, and brutal winters can also lead to the kind of despair that is easy to numb with a bottle.
I suspect Steinbeck might have embedded in a man camp with his new Tom Joads. The Williston about which Steinbeck might have written wouldn't necessarily have the giddy feel of Harry Smith's lottery town.
Next up, Kate Snow offered a piece on the wealthy women of China who fly to America to give birth to babies who will be instance U.S. citizens. We were promised "unprecedented access," a painful cliché I've been guilty of using myself. (I'm not quite sure what "unprecedented access" to the nursery where all the babies are lined up is a coup, but maybe it is.)
Snow's story focused on the new monied middle class in China fueling the U.S. "birth tourism." But basically, it was a variation on the theme of the pregnant women of Hong Kong who, for years, have been coming to America to give birth.
Snow is a natural story-teller and knows when to let the pictures tell the story. You won't find any jarring stand-ups where she interjects herself into the moment.
Her ease and subtlety can be quite a lethal weapon on a story. I hope she is encouraged to tackle the challenging ones outside of parenting and family.
Again, the story offered a jaw drop in the tag: the Chinese mothers have also been giving birth in America to get around the "one child" laws, "something we didn't get into," Snow added.
Why not? Historically one of the most brutal invasions of government into one's home life, the so-called "one child" law in China for years resulted desperate situations such as orphanages full of girl babies who were not as culturally desirable as having a boy, with more reportedly left on the road side (with many, ironically, destined for adoption in America.)
The "one child" laws created a generation pushed to over-achievement by the Chinese counterparts of our helicopter moms. (Imagine if our helicopter moms only had one egg in each basket.)
The skirting of the "one child" law in China by a growing number of middle class Chinese women is a huge story, a seismic cultural shift worthy of more than a tag. For years, Chinese women have been enjoying "tourism births" in Hong Kong where the "one child" law does not apply and those who are born there get free education, health care and a "right to abode."
According to a 2010 article in The Economist, tourists from mainland China accounted for 36 percent of births in Hong Kong and surrounding territories the year before. That a small number come to America is interesting. That a large number are skirting the law, if verifiable, is big news.
The Washington Post review of Rock Center called Richard Engel's story "more a stunt of derring-do than a news report, sneaking in and out of Syria to see how the liberation movement there is able to keep the world informed of its protests." I have long staked out a leadership role in Richard Engel's fan club. I do, however, agree with The Post. I might also add that the debrief between Engel and Williams added no new information at all.
Now, To The Cringe-Making Part: Brian Williams Banter With Jon Stewart.
Was this rehearsed or on the fly?
Of the "Occupy Wall St." movement, Williams asked, "Are we entering a permanent era of protest?"
"Where have you been? You're a newsman... do you have tape, TiVo?" Stewart replied.
After some unfunny back and forth, Williams began walking back his own words, explaining, well, "this is a new kind of movement."
With a more powerful instruction than I could ever offer, Jon Stewart looked around the set, now with Halloween decorations and said, "With the quality of the broadcast, I don't know why you want to end it on this note."
They should have cued the scary music.
In the end, I say "no big deal" that Brian Williams and Jon Stewart, each brilliant in his own right, were just not brilliant together. I do, however, hope Rock Center finds its footing and brings us viewers the great stories that make news and make a difference.
Disclosures: Shelley Ross was named executive producer of ABC's Primetime Live in 2004, after the news magazine had been merged with 20/20 in a failed effort to revive it, then "unmerged." Ross had been a producer for Primetime Live between 1989 and 1999 when she was named executive producer of ABC's Good Morning America. During her five and a half-year tenure there, she worked with Kate Snow and tried to hire Richard Engel. In 2007 Ross became senior executive producer of CBS' The Early Show where Harry Smith was co-anchor.
<strong>This column originally appeared in Shelley Ross' daily Xpress.
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