Last night, NBC News debuted Rock Center with Brian Williams, the network’s younger, hipper answer to CBS’ venerable 60 Minutes. As far as first episodes go, the new program was a solid success, showcasing the wry humor and authority of its anchor, while giving corresepondents like Kate Snow, Richard Engel, and Harry Smith (former anchor of The Early Show on CBS) a chance to shine with long-form features and in-depth interviews.
It’s the kind of journalism I personally enjoy watching and working on –– when a reporter spends a sustained period of time with his or her subject, giving the audience the opportunity to really feel invested in the personal narratives that fuel the story. As opposed to the traditional evening newscasts on ABC, NBC, and CBS, or even their cable news cousins, long-form broadcast news magazines like 60 Minutes are so fantastic in their ability to avoid the desire of a tweet-fueled modern news cycle to send out information immediately before journalists really have time to fully get to the heart of a story. It’s kind of like deciding to sit down with a good 500-page book over watching its hour and a half film version. While the acting and visual splendors of a film might offer more immediately-satisfying entertainment, it is never as enjoyable for me as sitting down on a lazy Sunday afternoon and getting lost in the detailed world described by the book’s author. I find that, generally speaking, a novel will dedicate more time than a film will in revealing the characters’ back stories and personal motivations.
I think the same is true of news magazines. Whether profiling a war criminal, politician, movie star, or the average American struggling to search for employment, or heading to the scenes of natural disasters and war zones, these kinds of programs devote more time to communicating the realities behind the news of the day. Obviously, I’m not alone in my appreciation of this kind of programming. According to The Hollywood Reporter, this past Sunday’s edition of 60 Minutes –– featuring a much-publicized interview with Bernie Madoff’s wife and son –– attracted its highest overall audience in a year. Similarly, ABC’s late-night news program, Nightline, routinely does better in the ratings than both Leno and Letterman.
As far as whether Williams’ new show can live up to that kind of success and the gold standard of 60 Minutes, the verdict is still out. However, what we have seen so far is promising. While the show did not light up the ratings (it performed worse than the canceled Mad Men wannabe The Playboy Club), it presented some compelling stories and a funny (if a little awkward and out-of-place) live interview with fake anchor Jon Stewart. The show still needs to find its footing, but I’ll be watching next week.