Don Imus and Seung-hui Cho landed NBC News at the center of a media maelstrom.
But as those stories unfolded, a different kind of drama was taking place at “Dateline,” the durable newsmagazine that underwent the most significant overhaul as part of the NBC 2.0 cost-cutting instituted last summer.
On the day of the Virginia Tech shootings, NBC cleared out an hour of primetime at 10 p.m. for a “Dateline” special, but whether it could actually deliver was by no means certain.
The staff had worked all weekend on a piece on Imus to air Sunday night. On Monday, the day of the Virginia Tech tragedy, “Dateline” was shorthanded, hampered by bad weather and thin on any TV-friendly elements like video, the names of victims, or even the name of the shooter.
Yet “Dateline” managed to get an hour on the air at 10 p.m., helped by the fact “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams had arrived and could anchor the live portion of the broadcast.
“Dateline” produced another hour the following night; both got a second airing on MSNBC, and the division churned out hourlong specials for A&E and History Channel.
The Virginia Tech story was the first time NBC’s longform unit, which includes “Dateline” and NBC News Media Prods., had been tested on a breaking story since an overhaul began, both of its staff and physical space at 30 Rock.
“Dateline” staffers have long produced for other NBC News programs such as “Nightly News” and “Today,” but now the staff is being integrated with NBC News Media Prods. to create a larger “longform unit” with interchangeable parts that will produce everything from a breaking “Dateline” special to the upcoming six-part “Models Inc.,” which is being produced by a “Dateline” staff for MSNBC and Bravo.
“We don’t consider ourselves ‘Dateline’ or media productions; we consider ourselves NBC’s longform nonfiction unit,” says David Corvo, executive in charge of both.
Central to the changes is a new way of operating. Under the new mandate, editors, reporters and producers are expected to be interchangeable, able to edit an episode of a reality skein or docudrama, and then jet to Blacksburg or elsewhere to turn out a breaking news special.
“We can be working on ‘Models’ and in the very next edit room, we’re doing a two-part investigative series on ID theft,” Corvo says. “It broadens our mission. It’s not like we get them confused. If you look at cable, all of the nonfiction is more immersive.”
The unit is producing two pilots for NBC primetime as well as the syndicated show “Your Total Health” and shows for multiple cable outlets like Discovery Channel, A&E, Travel Channel, Court TV, Sci Fi, National Geographic and USA.
About 30 dedicated “Dateline” positions were lost in the restructuring of the unit, though some of those were replaced with new hires at media productions. To accommodate the merged staffs, which will also include MSNBC’s longform unit, the fourth floor of 30 Rock is being renovated to change from offices to a newsroom-like open floorplan.
During the renovations, most of the New York-based longform staff is being housed in temporary space two blocks away.
The new approach comes as the longform unit is taking on a new prominence at the network with roles far beyond “Dateline,” which seemed like an endangered species when NBC announced its fall schedule last year.
Once a five-night-a-week fixture, the venerable newsmag was relegated to a single hour, on Saturday.
But seven months later, “Dateline” was back as often as four times a week, filling in gaps for programs that either ended their runs or disappeared due to low ratings.
In addition to the new nights (which includes a sacrificial lamb hour opposite Fox’s “American Idol”), the mission of NBC News’ longform unit has expanded, ramping up the amount of programming it sells to other outlets inside and outside the NBC U family.
NBC News prexy Steve Capus says that regardless of how many nights “Dateline” is on the schedule, the unit is taking on a new prominence as a producer of nonfiction programming for everything from “Nightly News” to Bravo.
Last summer, MSNBC replaced two hours of live shows with taped programming, and NBC’s longform unit committed to producing 50 hours a week for the cabler.
Some “Dateline” veterans are skeptical that the staff can keep up the pace and still be able to actually cover the news as it happens with the same production values viewers expect from “Dateline.”
“They are just fighting for product,” says one staffer. “There just aren’t as many people to throw at something as there used to be.”
But Corvo says the Virginia Tech story was a key test as to whether “Dateline” could still turn around an hour of programming on a few hours’ notice with a leaner, busier staff.
“In a contemporary broadcasting world, you have to be very smart about how you use your resources,” he says. “Your resources are deployed differently, but can we still pull together a special? Yes, so our judgment was right. If we weren’t, we would have to say, ‘Wait a minute, let’s think about this.’ ”
Staples of “Dateline” are the “To Catch a Predator” series, which has morphed into a hidden camera show that catches ID thieves, car thieves, Nigerian Internet scam artists and prescription counterfeiters; and true crime, which remains a reliable ratings draw.
Amid some of the more salacious plays for ratings, “Dateline” still invests time and resources on projects such as “The Education of Ms. Groves,” the story of a first-year teacher in Atlanta, which took a year to shoot and won a Peabody Award.
But that episode, which was pre-empted in much of the country, illustrates as well as anything, the new reality of the longform business at the networks. The show was presold to Sundance Channel to help defray the cost.