STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
OK. At 10 o'clock tonight, NBC anchor Brian Williams will do something that used to happen on TV all the time but hasn't happened in some years. He will begin a brand new primetime network TV newsmagazine. It's called "Rock Center," because it's live from NBC's Rockefeller Center headquarters in Manhattan. TV critic Eric Deggans says it's going to be tough to sell serious news in primetime.
ERIC DEGGANS: In today's television universe, this is what makes a successful TV newsmagazine.
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DEGGANS: That was part of Barbara Walters' interview with pop diva Mariah Carey and her new twin babies on ABC's "20/20" a week and a half ago.
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DEGGANS: And it became the highest rated program of the night. This is the tide Brian Williams is swimming against. Aside from "60 Minutes," recent primetime network newsmagazines are often a repository for, shall we say, less highbrow fare.
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DEGGANS: NBC executives insist "Rock Center" is going another way. Early ads for the show focused on a roster of high profile correspondents plucked from other networks' ranks.
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DEGGANS: Cool as it is to see Williams' deft wit on display - and he'll likely deploy it a lot introducing stories live on "Rock Center" - it might've been better to see ads on the actual stories they're covering.
NBC's move is a trip back to the future - the mid 1990s, actually - when the networks discovered newsmagazines were cheaper to make than hour-long dramas. Before long, there were 10 hours of them sprinkled across primetime. Back then, anchor stars such as Connie Chung, Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric had their own showcase series.
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DEGGANS: But the rush for sensation blended entertainment and news reporting so much, critics feared they might sink the standards of network TV news altogether. These newsmagazines were so profitable, in fact, only one thing could stop them.
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DEGGANS: We all know how that turned out for Jay Leno. Now "Rock Center" may cover the same ground - as a cheaper, easily duplicated program that leads seamlessly to affiliates' local newscasts.
Early reports indicate tonight's show will cover immigration, Middle East politics and employment - important stuff for sure, but hardly the impactful journalism of Mariah Carey's twins.
It's a sobering lesson. Eventually, time and the competition for viewers reduced newsmagazines with lofty goals to true crime stories and the latest celebrity revelation. If Brian Williams and "Rock Center" can't find compelling ways to escape that trap, they'll have to do something I'm not sure is possible - lure primetime audiences with serious news.
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INSKEEP: Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times, and you hear him right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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