moonlighting Mondays this fall, but at least he won’t have a long commute to his
second job. Just a few steps, in fact.
On Monday, NBC
will premiere the live newsmagazine “Rock Center With Brian Williams,” with the
anchor of the No. 1-rated “NBC Nightly News” serving as host. Viewers might find
the setting familiar: Both programs will originate from different corners of the
same space, Studio 3B in the network’s Rockefeller
Center headquarters in New York.
Long-struggling NBC is angling to
make “Rock Center” the first successful launch of a prime-time broadcast
newsmagazine in 20 years. And it has found an energetic evangelist in the
52-year-old anchor, a proudly old-school newshound who sees the public as
increasingly weary of the shouting matches on cable news and therefore hungry
for quality long-form TV journalism.
“People are coming back to known
faces, brand names, controlled environments,” Williams said by phone last week.
“I’m not going to yell at you, and you’re not going to learn my opinion — nor do
you care…. I think there absolutely is a market for more stories, well
Whether that’s true or merely wishful thinking might be decided as
early as Tuesday morning, when the first ratings for “Rock Center” come out. As
of late last week, the first episode — opening, perhaps inauspiciously, on Halloween night — was
scheduled to include taped pieces on the resistance movement in Syria and on
Chinese women who pay to come to the U.S. to have children and then return with
No matter what happens, Williams and his team know
they face long odds.
Although newsmagazines aren’t nearly as popular or
ubiquitous as during their 1980s heyday, “Rock Center” will have competition. As
it nears its 45th anniversary, CBS’ “60
Minutes” still pulls down impressive ratings on Sunday nights. ABC
News airs “Primetime”
as specials; NBC’s own “Dateline” and CBS’ “48
Hours” have evolved into true-crime outlets, spitting out the kind of lurid
tabloid tales that Williams has said “Rock Center” will avoid.
its part, has had trouble launching just about any prime-time show lately. “Rock
Center” is replacing “The
Playboy Club,” a ’60s drama that endured three low-rated episodes before
executives yanked it from the 10 p.m. Monday slot. The network brass is already
trying to manage expectations in a time period opposite two popular crime
dramas, CBS’ “Hawaii
Five-O” and ABC’s “Castle.”
don’t pretend to think that we’re gonna move the needle in the ratings when we
come out of the gate,” said Steve Capus, president of NBC News.
puts it even more bluntly. “I know we’re going to get crushed,” he said on MSNBC
Some analysts agree. “That the show is tossed in at this point
in the season makes it look like NBC is grab-bagging,” said Jeffrey McCall, a
media studies professor at DePauw University, adding that the additions of
host Ted Koppel and
other veteran journalists have raised expectations of a high-quality
Even so, “This show will likely struggle to find viewers and its
place in broadcast journalism,” McCall predicted. “I think NBC will have to be
That’s exactly what his bosses have promised to be, Williams
The anchor had long wanted to do a newsmagazine — his desk drawers
are crammed with a backlog of story ideas scribbled on paper scraps, he says.
But “Rock Center” got off the ground when the cable giant Comcast officially
took over NBC this year. Starting a newsmagazine was one of the first ideas from
Steve Burke, a Comcast veteran and newly tapped chief executive of NBC
“He was hours into his new job,” Capus said of Burke. “He
saw a need, an opening that he thought we could fill — that the audience had a
desire for a quality newsmagazine.”
At the heart of it all is Williams,
who paid his dues at local TV outlets — he and Capus slaved away together at a
station in the 1980s — before being snatched up by NBC as a reporter in 1993. A
savvy corporate politician as well as devoted student of TV news, he rose
through the ranks under the tutelage of his mentor, former “Nightly News” anchor
Brokaw, finally ascending to anchor in 2004.
Viewers seem to admire
Williams’ low-key style and all-American good looks, although people who know
him often say that “Nightly News” fails to capture his eclectic sensibilities as
well as his dry sense of humor (the latter trait displayed on his 2007 stint
Night Live” as well as appearances on “The
Daily Show” and “30
“Rock Center” has a chance to rectify that. “I hope the
program feels like Brian’s playlist,” said Rome Hartman, an indefatigable former
“60 Minutes” producer hired to oversee the new show.
Behind Williams, NBC
has assembled an all-star team. In addition to Koppel and Hartman, there will be
NBC foreign correspondent Richard Engel, former “Today”
show cohost Meredith
Vieira and Harry Smith, late
of CBS’ “The Early Show.”
In a somewhat unusual move, producers will
break some stories in their entirety online hours before the telecast, hoping to
spark discussion on social media and generate headlines.
the show will typically feature two or three meaty taped stories plus a live
in-studio interview, although the segment order and other details were being
noodled with late last week. “Our first show is gonna look radically different
than it does a year from now,” he predicted.
But the anchorman has always
insisted on one thing: Unlike its newsmagazine rivals, “Rock Center” will be
live, at least to much of the country.
“It’s my choice, and everyone
happily went along with it,” Williams said.
After years before cameras,
he has come to believe that he is different — and worse — on tape. Live
broadcasting is what he knows and feels comfortable with. Recording it takes
away the thrill of the moment, that sense of tightrope walking with no
“It’s an endorphin thing,” Williams said.
10 + 31 +2+0+1+1 = 45 = Rock Center’s life lesson = what Rock Center is here to learn = Realistic expectations. It’s going to be tough.