The long-running newsmagazine “Dateline” is about to explore a mystery that can’t be neatly wrapped in the one or two hours NBC typically devotes to the program: Can a TV-news staple flourish in the world of podcasts?
Producers hope so. NBC News today launched “13 Alibis,” a twisty audio-based tale of a man, Richard Rosario, who served 20 years in prison even though 13 different people were ready to vouch that he could not have committed the crime of which he was accused. “It’s told in the first person, through my eyes. It is my journey in the search for the truth,” says Dan Slepian, a “Dateline” producer who specializes in cases of wrongful conviction. “The audience might be as stunned as I was.”
NBC News will release 7 episodes of the podcast, each 15 to 20 minutes in length, and devote a page to it online. There are hopes it will be the first in a broader swath of audio releases from the show. “If you really believe you have a strong brand – which we do in the genre of murder mystery/true crime – you want to extend it and you want to assert it, really, in as many places as is appropriate,” says David Corvo, the NBC News senior executive producer who has oversight of the show.
Overall interest in podcasting has surged, particularly as consumers have adopted stand-alone mobile devices – think Amazon’s Alexa or even the average smartphone – that can stream audio content with great ease. More than half of people in the U.S. aged 12 or and older have listened to a podcast, according to a March 2019 report released by Edison Research and Triton Digital.
Some of the most successful podcasts have centered on true crime stories, most notably, “Serial,” a spinoff of the popular radio program, “This American Life.” But news outlets ranging from The New York Times to ABC News have joined the parade of content providers rushing to take part in podcast production that veers from daily-news explorations to deep dives into politics, faith and law.
“Dateline” launches its new audio effort amid a broader push by NBC News into podcasting. The NBCUniversal unit already produces “showcasts” of MSNBC’s primetime offerings, but intends to launch several new podcasts throughout 2019, including one that will eventually become a daily effort focused on the 2020 election.
There’s hope Slepian’s podcast will spark “something bigger,” says Elizabeth Cole, executive producer of “Dateline” and president of NBC News’ Peacock Productions documentary unit. “It’s an experiment for us,” she adds. “We are really looking for more opportunities for stories we might not do on ‘Dateline,’ and maybe for interesting stories that aren’t inherently visual, that lend themselves more to this sort of genre.”
Among various ideas being considered, according to Cole and Corvo, are podcasts that rely on some of the on-air correspondents from “Dateline”; some that tackle legal and social issues behind crime stories; or even “Dateline” podcasts that extend some of the stories originally presented on the flagship TV program. There may also be opportunities to make “Dateline” TV broadcasts available in audio form. “I think we will get better and better at it as we do it,” Corvo says.
The push into podcasts takes place as “Dateline” is sparring anew with its Friday-night rival, ABC’s “20/20.” The ABC show has found new ratings success in two-hour programs that take away some of the traditional newsmagazine trappings and emphasize the immersive documentary style favored by newer entrants to the medium. The NBC newsmagazine, which has long produced two-hour stories, has notched more viewers than “20/20” in the past two weeks. “Dateline” was watched by more people – and by more viewers favored by advertisers – in the past two TV seasons.
For Slepian, the producer, “13 Alibis” offers a chance to present a story and research about which he is truly passionate. He has spent years investigating stories of potential wrongful conviction, and his efforts have helped lead to the release of five different people. Documentaries he has produced have been nominated for Emmys eight times. “I get contacted all the time by people who claim they are innocent,” he says. “Some of the people are lying, but all too many of the people are telling the truth.”
Podcasts, ultimately, will help “Dateline” expand its repertoire, says Cole. “I don’t think it has to be a true crime angle,” she says. “Anything that’s a great story that can unfold over many episodes, we’d be game to do.”