When Keith Morrison appears on NBC this Sunday, he will be talking about the stuff viewers have come to expect of him – matters of life and death. But he won’t be chasing the perpetrator in a whodunnit, as he has while examining stories of murder and true crime on the network’s venerable “Dateline.”
NBC News is hoping the familiarity its audience has with its correspondents will allow the network to launch something very different: “On Assignment,” a six-episode newsmagazine that relies more heavily on stories of adventure and innovation than the so-called “murder porn” that viewers have come to expect from “Dateline,” “48 Hours” and other broadcast-network newsmagazines these days. It’s the news unit’s first attempt at a newsmagazine since the demise of an effort with similar goals: “Rock Center,” anchored by Brian Williams. “On Assignment” is also the latest programming salvo from NBC News, which recently launched a new edition of “Today” on Sunday and is in the midst of preparing a revamped third hour of its morning mainstay.
The aim of the new show is to hook viewers with shoe-leather tales that show off hard-to-reach places or unique access and details. “The emphasis is on the reporter being in the field, not the studio,” explained David Corvo, senior executive producer of “Dateline,” in an interview. “It’s about getting the viewer to the correspondent quickly – and with some energy.”
When “On Assignment” debuts this Sunday at 7 p.m. (viewers will be told the program is “powered by ‘Dateline’), it will show Cynthia McFadden nabbing the first U.S. television interview with “Guccifer,” the hacker who discovered Hillary Clinton’s private email account. Keith Morrison will investigate how people recover from traumatic brain injuries. Richard Engel, the storied NBC News foreign correspondent, even rescues a chimpanzee, all part of a search deep in the Congo for giant chimpanzees threatened by poachers.
Reporters will bring more of their own voice to each piece, in contrast with how they might file a story to “NBC Nightly News” or “Today.” “These are correspondents who know how to bring their own approach to a story,” Corvo said, adding: “These correspondents are not show-offs. They know when it helps the piece and when it’s going the wrong way.”
“On Assignment” launches as news aficionados – particularly those in the rising group of millennials and the generation behind them – have grown accustomed to more immediacy in the reporting they consume. Vice Media has seen a veritable cult of young consumers grow around it by wielding a brand of “immersionist,” or “you are there” video reportage that takes viewers on the scene, no matter how far-flung the location or how daunting the logistics are to reach it.
Corvo does not dismiss the popularity of the approach. “My feeling is this is the contemporary style. People are used to it,” he said. “It just brings an intimacy to a piece that you cannot provide with the traditional voice-over and B-roll. We are breaking that all down a little bit,” he noted, adding, “There are some conventions in broadcast you have to push against a little bit.”
Lester Holt will anchor the series, but from the NBC News newsroom, not the traditional anchor chair. Graphics that help to introduce each story will feature maps that invite the viewer to come along with the correspondent on the journey.
“Dateline” producers have mulled testing new ideas for the program for some time. In September, Corvo and Liz Cole, executive producer of “Dateline” publicly mulled the idea of using Sundays to move beyond the law-and-order cases for which the series is best known. “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,” Morrison said in an interview last fall. “So, yes, we are going to get a chance to do more of those things.”
Producers had begun to notice they were letting certain stories go, said Corvo, sometimes because they wouldn’t fill an hour. And yet, the pieces were really good, he added. “We kind of came to the conclusion we were trapped by the hour format,” he noted. In addition to Engel, McFadden and Morrison, Josh Mankiewicz, Matt Lauer, Harry Smith and Kate Snow will also contribute to the series. For one report in development, Smith has journeyed to a Pacific island so pristine visitors must freeze their clothes so as not to introduce bacteria to the environment.
NBC is putting “On Assignment” up against heady competition. The series will air in the same time slot as CBS’ “60 Minutes.” NBC once aired “Dateline” in that slot, so Corvo is accustomed to the competition. The CBS newsmagazine “has thrived in that time period for all those years, he said. “We are not expecting that we are going to change that dynamic.”
But NBC can use the program to burnish its reporting and entice a new crowd to sample its work. Corvo hopes people see it and come away eager to see additional episodes. ”I’m telling everyone we’re doing this, and I’m leaving it that,” he said. “I want everyone in the news division to see, and I want them to like it so we can do more.”