And yet NBC managed to throw a real curveball Thursday when The Wall Street Journal reported the network was considering a primetime news series that would be hosted by evening-news anchor Brian Williams.
While it’s doubtful NBC will have this ready for its upfront presentation Monday should they even choose to put such a program in primetime, the mere whiff of such an idea sends the wrong signal at the wrong time.
Every move NBC makes nowadays should scream a simple sentiment: our comeback is imminent. That’s the message new parent company sent on its last earnings call when NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke pledged to pump an extra $200 million into primetime. That’s the message new unscripted series “The Voice” sent by putting up impressive ratings.
But putting on a news program in primetime is not going to do that. Unless you’re “60 Minutes” or “Nightline,” newsmagazines serve one basic function on the schedule: they are cheap alternatives to entertainment that deliver reliable but modest ratings. They are the kind of shows you put on to patch holes in your schedule, not ignite audiences.
Creating a new news brand is just a savvier alternative to a more obvious move that would reek of desperation: spawning another edition of “Dateline.” It wasn’t that long ago that all the broadcasters were boasting multiple weekly editions of their respective newsmagazines, but that didn’t last too long for a reason. Now everything from “Dateline” to ABC’s “20/20” to CBS’ “48 Hours” are hopelessly tarnished, all awash in true-crime stories that aren’t anything like real news.
Highminded as launching a news program sounds, the sad truth is that there’s no hit potential and that’s the point of the TV business: generating hits. A news program is a pure punt, a gesture suggesting the network is going to hedge its bets and save up to spend elsewhere. It smacks of Jeff Zucker-era NBC, when the former NBCUniversal CEO would rationalize the lack of hits on his air with talk of “managing margins.” That’s a how network ends up in fourth place.
Come Monday, NBC should have as many time slots as possible filled with productions that have advertisers asking themselves, “Could this be the next big thing?” Anything less is a return to the perception this network must leave behind.