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Murder And Depth: NBC’s ‘Dateline’ Wants To Focus On Serious Stuff

At NBC, 'Dateline' Wants To Focus

Josh Mankiewicz has worked his way through so many murder cases that he could probably write a book on how to get away with one of them.

During a recent conversation, he was quick to rattle off some hard-won wisdom.”Police are much better at spotting liars than you think they are. Planning a murder is much harder than you think it’s going to be,” he advised. “Lying is something people are not as good at as they think they are.”

Mankiewicz is not a prosecuting attorney, career criminal or hard-bitten gumshoe – though he is a detective of sorts. He’s a correspondent for NBC’s “Dateline,” the Friday-night (and, during some TV seasons, multiple-night) newsmagazine that makes its greatest bones off deep looks into intriguing murder mysteries. This season, its 24th on the air, offers the sort of twist that helps propel its viewers to stay tuned in during commercial breaks: While the Friday edition will continue to focus on true crime, producers and correspondents (above, pictured, left to right: Keith Morrison, Dennis Murphy, Andrea Canning, Josh Mankiewicz and anchor Lester Holt) also want to use Sunday broadcasts to burnish deeply-reported stories focused on topics of broader importance.

“There is an audience for it,” said David Corvo, the program’s senior executive producer. “Maybe it’s difficult to put that story up against Thursday night and ‘Shondaland'” – a reference to ABC’s block of sudsy dramas from producer Shonda Rhimes – “but there are places on the schedule where people will find those stories and you get rewarded for doing them.”

Stories in development include an in-depth look at the June mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, as well as a deeply reported piece on a potential wrongful conviction in the 1990 murder of a Utah tourist who came to New York to see the U.S. Open, only to be set upon by a “wolfpack” gang in New York City. “I’m not telling you the ending, because we don’t know it yet,” said Lester Holt, who continues to anchor “Dateline” despite a new phalanx of duties that he took on this year as the new face of “NBC Nightly News.” A coming court decision will provide the show with the story’s last crucial detail, he said.

Even Keith Morrison, the correspondent whose association with “Dateline” has attracted the satirical attention of “Saturday Night Live,” is eager to tackle other topics when appropriate. He said he loves wading into the minutiae of the crime stories – and will narrate the show’s two-hour season premiere this Friday about a murder in a small town – but “you still hanker to do the kind of reporting we got into television to do in the first place, which is stories about things that matter to the wider society. So, yes, we are going to get a chance to do more of those things.”

TV newsmagazines sometimes try to move beyond the true-crime stories and “murder porn” for which many of them are known. At CBS, “48 Hours” in January of last year ditched its usual homicide tales for an examination by correspondent Maureen Maher of the hurdles families face when trying to manage adoptions of children from overseas. The show has also looked at the issue of bullying.

Keeping fans happy is important for “Dateline.” The program has become a go-to for NBC when holes appear in its primetime schedule, and the show, often expands its hours to fill in for scripted series yanked for poor ratings performance.Between September 22 of last year and September 9 of this year, “Dateline” ran 151.4 primetime hours, according to NBC, including repeats, specials and Saturday broadcasts.

“Dateline” is trying to pare back its use of “popular culture” stories and “funny things” said Corvo. “We are kind of focusing on more serious stories this year,” he said. “The more serious stuff is what our staff wants to do and what we want to do.” Indeed, suggested Liz Cole, the series’ executive producer, a recurring ‘Dateline” feature known as “My Kid Would Never Do That” that examines how teenagers and kids react to situations ranging from bullying to being lured by a stranger, may be getting less emphasis in the near future.

NBC News executives focus on ratings like anyone else, but “Dateline” producers said the subtle shift in direction for the program comes in response to monitoring the social-media community that has grown up around it. Running a story that gains the respect of 1.5 million followers on Facebook, 376,000 on Twitter and 31,000 on Instagram “is a good litmus test,” said Cole.

When Mankiewicz filed a report for a Sunday edition of “Dateline” about Katie Holmes leaving Tom Cruise in 2012, he recalled, his Twitter feed was “deluged” by viewers “who were angry with me, asking, ‘When are you getting back to real news?'”

Holt, who has anchored the show since 2011, will maintain his commitment to the show, despite the intense time requirements of anchoring the evening news. “I wanted to continue on ‘Dateline.’ It allows me to exercise a different set of muscles,” he said. He will sometimes reserve mornings for “Dateline” reporting before wading into the daily grind, and works on his stories for the program in “chunks” over a longer period of time. “Long-form reporting is a different art,” he added.