Decade-old ‘Dateline’ counts its blessings

Apr 22, 2002  •  Post A Comment

While “Dateline NBC” invites viewers to walk down memory lane with “A Decade of `Dateline”’ at 10 p.m. (ET) Tuesday, executive producer David Corvo is looking ahead as the magazine prepares to branch out further.
His team is producing six to eight two-hour “Datelines” for next season, a summer series on firefighters and an interactive “Dateline” about stress.
That’s in addition to supplying multiple editions to the network each week and putting finishing touches on more immediate “Datelines,” including the April 26 show devoted to using the Web to reunite “lost and found” people.
“I think flexibility and innovation have been the keys to `Dateline’ through its whole history,” said Mr. Corvo, who took over the magazine last year when longtime “Dateline” executive producer Neal Shapiro became president of NBC News.
Storytelling that fits the story has always been a trademark of “Dateline,” said Mr. Corvo, who deployed hand-held cameras but no correspondents for a recent hour on Las Vegas. He also rigged a Coast Guard vessel with “lipstick” cameras and producers with hand-held cameras for an upcoming story that was meant to be an intimate look at on-board life. The story became something much more dramatic when the vessel had a run-in with refugee smugglers, who were later charged with murder after some of the refugees died in a storm off Florida.
“I’m just trying to push that envelope forward a little bit,” Mr. Corvo said.
He’s being urged on by NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker, who commissioned the slate of two-hour “Datelines,” some of which will be crime stories. Mr. Zucker and his entertainment executives “don’t get a veto” on topics, Mr. Corvo said. However, there is communication with Burbank-based programmers to make sure “we all are on the same page.”
As a former newsman, Mr. Zucker well knows-and knows that Mr. Corvo and Mr. Shapiro know-that it takes “rich stories” to justify two hours of network prime time.
Mr. Corvo also oversees the NBC News Productions unit that is run by executive producer Sharon Scott and that churns out income-producing programming mostly for cable outlets, including the Discovery Channel (the “Dateline Discovery” magazine has “morphed” into “Dateline”-produced documentaries), Court TV, The Learning Channel, Discovery Health channel and sister channel MSNBC.
The unit followed up “Dateline’s” riveting April 10 hour about a telegenic Indiana judge practicing juvenile justice with a package for MSNBC. Karen Grau of Calamari Productions was granted rare and intimate access for the piece.
With MSNBC trying to become more competitive and less taped, NBC News Productions is getting more strenuous in its search for buyers of its programming.
“We’ve got a few pilots out there for cable shows,” said Mr. Corvo, who prefers commitments of 16 to 18 episodes.
In the meantime, Mr. Corvo comes to the end of his first year at the helm of a magazine that is hugely profitable-the network declines to be specific but says it is more profitable than “Nightly News” but less profitable than “Today”-and that is the only Big 3 network newsmagazine to claim ratings improvements this season. It also is the favorite newsmagazine among viewers 18 to 49, which boosts ad revenues.
“Dateline” Tuesday has averaged a 7.7 rating/13 share for the season to date, while “Dateline” Friday is up 1 percent to 8.3/5 and “Dateline” Sunday is up 6 percent to 6.6/11.
Indeed, the Friday edition of “Dateline” is gaining on the leading network newsmagazine, CBS’s “60 Minutes,” which has eroded 10 percent season to season to an average 10.3/17.
“What’s happened over 10 years is that the program has a brand now that has really sunk in to the American public-at least the magazine-watching public-in a very deep and defining way,” Mr. Corvo said.