HDNet announced in July that CBS News veteran Wayne Nelson would be brought on board as executive producer of the start-up “Dan Rather Reports.” The three-time Emmy winner has a long history with Mr. Rather, including working closely with the anchor on “CBS Evening News.” Mr. Nelson recently shared his insights on Mr. Rather and the new HDNet show with TelevisionWeek National Editor Michele Greppi.
TelevisionWeek: How are things going?
Wayne Nelson: This is really a blast. Just to have the kind of freedom to do what you want to do is remarkable. Great television doesn’t happen overnight. It takes some time to make it work. Just having a good group of people and having Dan so excited about something has been thrilling. He was pretty overtaxed at CBS News for a long time. This has given him the chance to focus on one thing, that one thing being about 20 stories he is doing. He’s going to win the frequent-flier award.
TVWeek: The workload Dan Rather is carrying isn’t exactly inconsequential. So explain how you don’t see him as being overtaxed.
Mr. Nelson: I don’t see him as being overtaxed because he’s running and gunning. He really has his mind totally focused on this-as opposed to at CBS, where he had “48 Hours,” he had “60 Minutes,” he had the “Evening News” for so long. It was a pretty tough load for anybody to carry. Now he’s really involved in the stories every day. We have many, many conversations about where we’re going and what we’re doing, how we’re going to make it special, how we’re going to make it different. We’re doing it on a really short clock. We’re doing things in weeks instead of months.
TVWeek: That’s not the way “60 Minutes” folks were used to operating, either.
Mr. Nelson: No, they’re not. We’re trying to get stories of the same quality but just don’t have quite the luxury of time they have. They have a gigantic staff there. That gives each producer the opportunity to do three, four, five stories a year. I don’t have that time. Original reporting takes a long time. When you’re doing long-form, in order to build a story, in order to have that really wonderful story arc that “60 Minutes” is so famous for, it’s like a little movie. It takes time.
TVWeek: How is your average day different now from what it was at CBS News in pace and length?
Mr. Nelson: Dan said the other day it’s sort of like trying to change a tire on a moving car. It is really, really long days; it is really, really long hours. I’ve got a little girl who doesn’t see me much anymore. And I don’t know that’s going to change very much for a while. I’m not quite sure anyone realized that this is an enormous amount of work. It is a full boatload.
TVWeek: And with not many full-time core people.
Mr. Nelson: The nature of the business has changed, and there’s some really good freelance producers out there that can drop into projects. I’ve got some really good former “60 Minutes” people, former ABC people here-“20/20” and “Turning Point.”
TVWeek: And there soon will be NBC News people.
Mr. Nelson: With the changes at CBS and NBC, I fully expect a conga line outside my door sometime soon, just people who are scared to death of what’s coming down.
TVWeek: I asked Dan Rather what he has learned since you started cranking up for HDNet. He said he has all but mastered his cellphone.
Mr. Nelson: He hasn’t totally mastered the cellphone, because I called it the other day and it said, “This mailbox is full.” Dan had at CBS, forever, an old manual typewriter in his office, and now he has a little Apple computer that he carries with him. He’s very religious about using it. And he has a BlackBerry. To see Dan Rather using his BlackBerry is worth the price of admission. He’s now Techno Man; he really is.
TVWeek: Can he Google yet?
Mr. Nelson: He can Google. He’s an amazing Googler now. He was very cute last night. He was packing up his computer and being very proud of himself and then he turned to me and said, “I don’t know how to unhook this cable here.”
TVWeek: But what have you learned?
Mr. Nelson: I’ve learned that this business can be fun again. The networks have become so prohibitive-not in what you can do but how you can go about doing it, especially with cost. That’s not to say that we’re just going crazy here, but they’re not talking to me about money. I say that to my old friends at CBS and ABC and they go, “Omigod. How wonderful is that?” And it really is the most wonderful feeling to say that we really need to send two cameras to cover the funeral of a young American soldier to do it right. You don’t have to answer to 30 vice presidents. You just go do it.
TVWeek: Do you find yourself doing any more preparatory work on stories than you would have at “60 Minutes”?
Mr. Nelson: I don’t think so. I’m not involved in the daily preparation of stories so much as I am just keeping the cars on the track and keeping a smile on You Know Who’s face. We’ve got a really high bar here. One of the things I’m most protective of him about is accuracy. We can’t be wrong. We can’t afford that. He can’t afford that. I’ve got more researchers than associate producers right now, because we want to make sure that what we do is right.
TVWeek: How are you vetting and screening the final product?
Mr. Nelson: We are screening it ourselves here right now. When you say final product, I wish I had a final product. I would give anything to have a final product. I’m trying to bring in some people from the outside just so we’ll have … other perspectives. Like former “60 Minutes” people, which there seems to be a wealth of.
TVWeek: What do you see in Dan Rather that is different?
Mr. Nelson: I see a smile on his face. If you’ve known him for as long as I have, it wasn’t that he was unhappy at CBS, [but] I think he was toward the end. He’s just got so much energy. I almost worry about him because I don’t want him to wear out. Right now he is the only horse in the stable, and we don’t want to ride him too hard. We have been pushing to get him involved in all of these pieces, and he is loving it. The number of days he has been on the road or in airplanes has been close to 90 percent of the last two months.
I hate to say new man or rebirth or whatever crapola thing you can say, but he’s almost like a little kid, just a big kid with a new toy. We’re just trying to make this thing work. To do interesting, relevant journalism on not a PBS sort of turnaround, because we’re trying to do this in almost real time, is hard. And he comes to the table with so many ideas about stuff. All these people who come into meetings with him who weren’t even born when he was covering the Kennedy assassination are blown away by what he brings to it. Because he doesn’t have these constraints anymore, he just feels alive.
TVWeek: At what point might it make sense for there to be another reporting horse in the stable?
Mr. Nelson: I don’t know. I could do it right now, but the problem is it would need to be somebody that (a) he would feel comfortable with, and (b) would be strong enough to do that. There have been a lot of people who have contacted us and said they were available to help if we needed. A lot of former CBS people and some former ABC people.
TVWeek: And soon to be those former NBC people.
Mr. Nelson: And many from NBC to be here. What a mess. It really is.
TVWeek: How are you planning stories in a way to take advantage of the visual impact that HD affords?
Mr. Nelson: A lot of it is story selection, and that’s a really fine line to walk. You want to take full advantage of the technology, but on the other hand the people at HDNet really want content. I’m looking for unique ways to take advantage of the technology. We’ve got stories we’ve done in Alaska, in Louisiana. We’re working on going to Afghanistan. We’ve been down in Mexico.
TVWeek: How often do you get out on the job with Mr. Rather?
Mr. Nelson: Not enough. At CBS I would travel with him all over the world. We were everywhere from Baghdad to Columbine and hurricanes. I was the one who was actually standing next to him when he was holding onto that pole. I was ready to do
a taped segment and feed it back to New York and he said, “No, I want to do this live.” I said, “You’re out of your mind.” We did it, and somehow it worked. The gods were with us that day.
TVWeek: That would look amazing in hi-def.
Mr. Nelson: Unbelievable.
TVWeek: There is a hurricane working its way up the west coast of Mexico.
Mr. Nelson: No kidding. Oh dear. Don’t tell him that.
TVWeek: What should we expect for opening credits and logo and such?
Mr. Nelson: We’re actually having one built right now. It’s really cool. A company in New York called Version 2 is putting it together. It’s a very contemporary look in that I think that we have seen globes spinning for the last 50 years, so I insisted on no globes spinning. But in HD, you have an enormous amount of real estate you don’t normally have in standard def. These people came through with what I thought was the most interesting concept. It has to do with triangles that unfold and make a map. Until you see it, it’s hard to explain. There are layers and there are lines. It’s really cool. In my heart of hearts you’re going to see a lot of these programs with Dan in his office just talking to you. It’s going to be pretty simple. We’re not going to use a graphic unless we have to.