NBC's 'Dateline' Returns to Multi-Topic Format on Sundays

NBC News
'Dateline' journalist Josh Mankiewicz

"On Assignment" is a departure from the suddenly trendy narrative true crime.

NBC’s Dateline is returning to its roots as a multi-topic newsmagazine. The NBC News staple will kick off Dateline: On Assignment beginning May 8 and continuing for six weeks Sundays at 7 p.m.

The new series will be anchored by Lester Holt and feature pieces from the news division’s heavy hitters, including Matt Lauer, Tom Brokaw and Richard Engel, as well as regular Dateline correspondents Josh Mankiewicz and Kate Snow.

“It’s a little bit back to the future for us,” notes Dateline executive producer David Corvo.

The new franchise, which may continue beyond the planned six-week run, puts Dateline in direct competition with CBS News stalwart 60 Minutes, TV’s longest-running newsmagazine and one that continues to attract more than 13 million viewers a week. But Corvo notes that the new series was borne of an effort to find a home for material that that may not have warranted an entire hour. Newsmagazine viewers will recognize the familiar mix of topics including newsmaker interviews and investigations as well as politics, Hollywood and adventure.

“It was more about stretching our own wings than trying to measure up against them,” says Corvo of 60. “They do what they do and they do it brilliantly. We’re trying to use some of the muscles that we don’t use on Friday. And who knows where it goes down the road.”

Dateline will continue to air single-topic hours — including narrative true crime — in its regular 10 p.m. slot on Fridays, though the Saturday hour will go on hiatus during On Assignment. The show has experimented with limited run series in the past (Escape, for instance, detailed how people escaped peril including during the Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster).

Broadcast news divisions and cable networks have long been mining the true crime genre that suddenly became trendy again with the Serial podcast and HBO’s The Jinx. In fact, ten years ago Dateline produced an hour on the Steven Avery case that Netflix turned into the 10-hour opus Making a Murderer, with plans for a second season. And CBS will produce a longform documentary series about the still unsolved murder of JonBenet Ramsey from former 48 Hours producer Tom Forman.

The renewed interest in narrative true crime has also lifted Dateline. A revisiting of the O.J. Simpson case, a story that received new life via Ryan Murphy's scripted effort on FX, did very strong ratings for NBC. And a recent Dateline digital series about wrongful convictions has generated intense interest from linear channels.

“We’ve been approached by a lot of channels. So we’re trying to figure out how we make that a television series,” says Corvo. “It seems like everyone I know in Hollywood is being asked if they know how to do unscripted longform crime."