That NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt has a great eye for talent is obvious judging from a track record evident even before his days at Showtime. But that said eye would extend into NBC’s news division has emerged as an early surprise at this week’s upfronts.
Greenblatt confirmed in his Sunday pre-upfront press conference announcing NBC’s primetime schedule that he’s looking to add a newsmagazine to the programming lineup later this season. Thankfully, it’s not on the schedule yet, which as I blogged last week, would have been a mistake.
There’s few details to share at this early stage, but this much Greenblatt knows: It won’t be like “Dateline,” with its true-crime stories and single-story format. And it will feature “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams.
The very fact that Greenblatt is thinking about news programming at all is surprising, and for a few reasons. One, it’s been a looong time since any broadcasters has looked at newsmagazine as anything more than cheap schedule padding. Two, there’s nothing in Greenblatt’s resume that suggests he would take an interest in news programming.
When The Wall Street Journal first reported Williams’ involvement, I didn’t think much of it beyond being a fairly obvious move; what better way to give a new news program credence than with the most established name in the news division. But as Greenblatt discussed the newsmagazine during a press conference Sunday, it became clear that he sees Williams as a lot more than just an evening-news anchor.
“A couple of months ago I sat down with Steve Capus who is the head of the news division and I said, ‘Let’s try to take these incredible news assets that only NBC has and let’s see if we can develop a newsmagazine that is fresh, relevant and entertaining,'” Greenblatt recounted. “That of course led us right to Brian Williams, the best of the best. Not only as a journalist, but as a guy who’s funny and comfortable in his own skin.”
I was really struck by how Greenblatt characterized Williams because it’s rare you hear a journalist described in any way that doesn’t directly correspond to journalistic ability. While his comment certainly stands as a compliment for Williams, it’s difficult not to read it also as a backhanded swipe at pretty much all of his colleagues in the news business, who tend to come across in an artificial, stilted manner that has probably hurt the genre.
But personality alone can’t drive a newsmagazine; surely there’s some innovation to the format Greenblatt has in mind. But when I asked him how he plans for this program to stand out in the genre, he returned immediately to Williams.
“I think it’s Brian Williams and his sensibility and skill that can inform this,” he said. “First and foremost, there’s the newsman and at the same time, he has a really fun personality that I think can enliven a magazine show, which is what he can’t do on evening news. He does it to some degree when he’s doing some serious interviews on the talk shows with Leno or Letterman and one of the other places. He usually talks about very serious things but in a way that is very relatable and very human. I can’t think of anyone who does it quite like he does.”
What Greenblatt seems to be getting at here is this odd compartmentalization Williams has always done with his image. There’s Williams as anchor, a role he performs with little of the charm and wit he displays in so many other entertainment venues, be it appearances on late-night shows, his memorable hosting of “Saturday Night Live” or cameos on “30 Rock.” Maybe Greenblatt wants to break down the walls between those personas in the hope that a blend of the two creates something uniquely appealing.
It will make for an interesting experiment, but I can’t help but maintain some skepticism given how moribund newsmags like “20/20” and “48 Hours” have been for so long. There’s, of course, one exception, as Greenblatt reminded me, joking, “I’d love to struggle to the degree ’60 Minutes’ is struggling.”