NEW YORK — “Dateline NBC” co-anchor Jane Pauley will step down from her duties in May, and her departure has caused speculation about how the newsmag will fare in the Darwinian primetime world of reality TV.
A 27-year vet at the Peacock, the former “Today Show” anchor decided against renewing her contract.
The first woman to have an anchor’s chair on a weeknight evening broadcast when she worked at the Peacock’s Chicago O&O in 1975, the “Dateline” doyenne has not spelled out her future plans beyond finishing a book.
Looking for freedom
“I follow the lead of many women and men who have left established careers to follow a dream, find more meaning, or just more freedom,” the 52-year-old said in a statement.
Network chairman Bob Wright said that Pauley is “a pioneer who has been synonymous with NBC for nearly 30 years.”
Pauley was not available for comment.
People close to the situation at the newsmag are already speculating about her successors, and most of them hail from the net’s ayemers.
Candidates include “Today Show” news anchor Ann Curry and Soledad O’Brien, co-anchor of “Weekend Today.”
No decision yet
But NBC News division Neal Shapiro says that he hasn’t made any hard choices yet.
“This development is relatively new,” said Shapiro, once a “Dateline” executive producer. “I don’t feel I need to make a decision now.”
While the Peacock mulls a possible replacement for Pauley, it may be thinking about “Dateline’s” ratings, which — like those of other newsmags — have waned in recent years as the fascination for reality television has waxed.
But in the face of that decline, NBC maintains that its three “Dateline” programs have suffered less than other newsmags.
NBC says its Friday broadcast has won its time period in the 18-49 demo for the past six seasons, and its Tuesday program has been the No. 1 newsmag in the 18-49 demo for the past four years.
But there is a general climate of soul-searching among newsmags.
CBS’s “60 Minutes” pioneer Don Hewitt recently said that he will hand over the reins to his protege Jeff Fager.
When “48 Hours” anchor Dan Rather stepped down at the end of last season, CBS brought in Lesley Stahl, overhauled its look and rechristened it “48 Hours Investigates.” Program has since seen an uptick in the ratings.
ABC News recently resolved that in the face of declining ratings, its mags would be tweaked, assigning more stories that featured a narrative arc.
“The trend of the newsmagazine is on the downside,” said Chris Geraci, director of national broadcast for the ad agency OMD. “I don’t see them as appealing.”
While some industry insiders say that “Dateline” should be getting more celebrity “gets,” Geraci sees no reason to alter the program.
That is, if the network doesn’t see fit to reduce the timeslots for “Dateline.”
Though the newsmag has expanded and contracted over the years, the net seems to be experimenting with various “Dateline” slots.
During this year’s sweeps, Sunday’s “Dateline” has been replaced with repeats of reality programming.
Tuesday’s “Dateline” has been supplanted by “Kingpin.”
At the same time, a rumor has been circulating that “Dateline” executive producer David Corvo would be replaced by exec editor Marc Rosenwasser, which Shapiro flat out denied.
Shapiro says it’s too early to say if there will be permanent changes to the program. Instead, he says he will have a clearer idea toward the spring, when nets set their schedules.
“There’s always this kind of speculation around now,” he said. “We never know until May.”