NBC’s ‘Nightly News’ and ‘Dateline’

Jan 15, 2007  •  Post A Comment

By Debra Kaufman

Special to TelevisionWeek

NBC news anchor Brian Williams got to New Orleans early, and from the moment he arrived, he realized the magnitude of the story. “The story line was first that we dodged a bullet, but on the second day we had two stories: the devastation of the Gulf and then the flooding,” said John Reiss, executive producer of “NBC Nightly News.” “Then New Orleans became the story and stayed that way. We tried as much as we could to make Katrina our story.”

With his relentless daily coverage, Mr. Williams is associated in many viewers’ minds with coverage of Hurricane Katrina and especially the aftermath. “We didn’t let go of the story,” Mr. Reiss said. “Even when Brian got back, we had a feature `After the Storm: The Long Road Back’ and produced 10 stories that week.”

The main impact of NBC’s “Nightly News” and “Dateline,” however, took place during that first week when the hurricane hit and the flooding created a second, much worse disaster. After Monday night’s coverage, “Nightly News” produced an hour for the following four nights, a Herculean task that Mr. Reiss called “extraordinary.”

The pinnacle of the coverage was Thursday night. “That was the day we found out about the convention center, and the story busted wide open,” said Mr. Reiss, who noted that that night’s coverage won the news program an Emmy and an Edward R. Murrow award. “Part of how we covered it was someone showed Brian around the convention center, showing someone who just died, someone who’s ill, someone without food.”

“Every day we have a sharing meeting among the various broadcasts and platforms,” he said. “I’d just seen some of the raw video and I said, `You cannot believe what is coming in and what’s going on in the convention center. This may be the biggest story yet.”‘

NBC’s “Dateline” was also on-site, starting with a two-hour report on Wednesday, with one or two hours for a week afterward. “Dateline’s” executive producer David Corvo reported that, after Mr. Williams anchored the first night’s coverage, Stone Phillips and Ann Curry joined the on-site crew.

Reporters and producers on location experienced the biggest challenges. “They were sleeping on floors in empty hospitals and in their rented cars,” Mr. Corvo said. “They went for days without food and when they got it, they gave it away to the people around them. We were trying to get supplies sent in from Atlanta, Texas, Chicago. Those folks had a really hard time.”

The local NBC affiliate was flooded, so some people drove into Baton Rouge daily to feed their stories, while others relied on a pre-positioned satellite truck. Most of the editing was done at headquarters in New York. “The same magazine pieces we usually take months to do we were turning around in hours,” said Mr. Corvo, who is particularly proud of an investigative hour focusing on why the flooding happened. “We had material from previous briefings about the dangers of the levees, and a lot of things that have been reported since,” he said. “But we put it on the air in the middle of the coverage.”

Though the “Nightly News” and “Dateline” crews have weathered 9/11 and the 2004 tsunami in Asia, they still took away lessons from covering Katrina. “There are no limits to what a news broadcast can do,” Mr. Reiss said. “Each day we thought, can we really do an hour tonight? And each night I realized we could have done 11/2 hours. I learned, don’t underestimate the story.”