NBC Is a Murrow Magnet

Oct 16, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Elizabeth Jensen

Special to TelevisionWeek

It may or may not be coincidence. But NBC News, anchor-wise the most stable of the network news organizations in 2005, is also the news operation taking home the bulk of the 2006 Edward R. Murrow Awards for TV networks.

When the awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association are handed out Oct. 16 in New York, a full six of the 13 awarded in the category of television network/syndication service will go to NBC News. Among them is the prestigious overall excellence award. Four of the six will go to “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams.”

The awards are for work done in 2005, Mr. Williams’ first full year at the helm of the nightly newscast. A changing of the anchor guard is hardly an easy time for a broadcast, but NBC had plenty of advance notice to prepare for the transition from Tom Brokaw. By contrast, CBS News made an abrupt anchor switch last year as Dan Rather stepped down and was replaced by Bob Schieffer. ABC News, of course, lost anchor Peter Jennings to lung cancer.

The overall excellence award “speaks to the strength of the entire organization,” not just leadership from the top or outstanding individual efforts, said Steve Capus, who took over as acting NBC News president in September 2005 and was named to the post permanently in November. From the camera operators and producers to the technicians and editors, Mr. Capus called his troops “a world-class news organization doing some of the finest work ever in the history of the division.”

Stability “has helped define this division,” Mr. Capus said. That gives viewers a comfort level, he said, because the correspondents “are instantly recognizable to the general public.” But it is also an advantage internally, he said, as more and more demands are placed on employees, including reporting for the third hour of “Today,” MSNBC, the MSNBC .com Web site, and even CNBC during the day. “Everybody backstops each other and helps out,” he said. “We’ve got a core group of people who are outstanding and at the top of their game, and this award speaks to that.”

Two of the four “Nightly News” citations are for the program’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina: the continuing coverage and outstanding newscast awards. One of the newscasts submitted was for NBC’s examination of the deteriorating conditions in the New Orleans convention center, a report that eventually made its way, via White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett, to President Bush, said John Reiss, the executive producer of “Nightly News.” RTNDA isn’t the only organization to take note of the program’s Katrina coverage; it also won the coveted Peabody Award earlier in the year, as well as a News Emmy in late September in the category of coverage of a breaking news story.

Except for during the 9/11 attacks, “I don’t think I’ve seen a news organization more energized,” Mr. Reiss said. “We threw everything at Katrina that week. Brian went down there and saw very quickly that it was not just another hurricane story, that we were facing the loss of an American city” and a breakdown in local, state and national governments.

Echoing Mr. Williams’ comments in accepting the Emmy Award, Mr. Reiss noted that NBC employees “moved their lives down to New Orleans under increasingly adverse circumstances,” stockpiling food to buy off potential muggers, working on the fly without all the backup tools journalists rely on. It’s rare for an anchor, in particular, to operate under such difficult conditions, but Mr. Reiss noted, “When you have your anchor at the heart of the story for an entire week, it changes the dynamics of the story. He gets to see things that he otherwise wouldn’t,” and steer the coverage accordingly.

Because they were working without the computer and phone connections required for putting together a tightly scripted newscast, Mr. Reiss and his team resorted to a looser style of broadcast. Correspondent Carl Quintanilla, Mr. Reiss recalled, usually worked without a specific assignment; his story, which generally ran second in the rundown, was often listed as “TBA” and would end up being whatever Mr. Quintanilla discovered in his daily forays through New Orleans in a boat. As for Mr. Williams, he “freelanced” his 90-second remarks, “because I think he was so profoundly affected by what he saw,” Mr. Reiss said.

While Katrina dominated the headlines, there were other big news events in 2005, including the ongoing war in Iraq. “Nightly News” was honored with the hard news/feature award for correspondent Richard Engel’s portrait of “Baghdad E.R.,” a deviation from the usual report of the daily death toll in the country.

Like the Katrina coverage, Mr. Engel’s July 2005 portrait of Baghdad’s Yarmuk Hospital emergency room, with its bare walls and 30-year-old X-ray machine and 800 patients each week, was much less scripted than the standard “Nightly News” piece and filled with natural sound. Mr. Williams cautioned viewers in his introduction that the piece would be “a bit hard to watch,” but Mr. Reiss said his correspondent “did a story that just came alive.” Among the most wrenching scenes was one in which a nurse talked of cleaning away the blood on a patient with two bullet wounds, only to discover it was his best friend.

Personally, Mr. Reiss said, he loves stories in which the correspondent is at the heart of the story. “But we can’t make every piece about the correspondent,” he said, “and to their credit, they don’t want the pieces to be about them. But there are times when it’s simply more affecting when the correspondent is in the middle of the story.”

Mr. Engel’s report earlier this year about Iraqi orphans is a case in point, he said, with its chattering, affection-starved children clustering around the correspondent. The story hit such a nerve with viewers that “Nightly News” ran it a second time.

The final “Nightly News” award, for spot news coverage, is going to a more straightforward reporting assignment: coverage of the London terror bombings of July 2005. The newscast devoted almost all of its segments that night to the attacks.

NBC’s final Murrow Award is for writing, and it will go to the morning “Today” show for its long-running and much-honored feature report “American Story With Bob Dotson.”

“There are very few ways that good work is recognized, and this does tell you that colleagues in the business value what you do,” Mr. Reiss said. “There are no bad entries in the Murrows, and these are respected colleagues who are saying your work is worthy of national recognition. Winning these things does feel good.”