'Rock Center' Looks to Bring More Hard News to Primetime

Patrick Kramer/NBC

NBC's "Dateline" will be the network's true-crime destination, but "Rock Center" executive producer Rome Hartman says the newsmagazine will not "rule out" stories about Casey Anthony or Amanda Knox.

NEW YORK – Rock Center with Brian Williams, the first newsmagazine launch in two decades, will not be a “smash hit right out of the starting block,” said NBC News president Steve Capus, during a conference call with reporters on Monday.

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In fact, he added, “I actually think it’s going to be the opposite. We’re not doing this as a ratings play. We’re not kidding ourselves, we know it’s going to take some time to get established.”

But the NBC News program, which bows Oct. 31 at 10 p.m. in the time slot inherited from the canceled Playboy Club, has the full backing of Comcast corporate parents, who shortly after the merger last January suggested expanding the Nightly News brand into primetime.

“We were invited to do the program by our new bosses at NBC,” said David Corvo, senior ep.

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“Our marching orders from an incredibly supportive corporate suite here are very simple: get on, get established and do great work that we’re all proud of,” added Capus.

Rock Center will originate live from a new set at Studio 3B in Rockefeller Center. A brand new Nightly News set also has been built adjoining the Rock Center set. The show has already added dozens of producers and production personnel as well as several high-profile contributors including Harry Smith, Ted Koppel and Meredith Vieira. And Capus said, they’re still staffing up.

Certainly a newsmagazine - which typically costs $250,000 to $300,000 to produce (not including anchor salaries) compared with $3 million for a scripted hour - is a cost-effective way to fill an hour of primetime. But Rock Center is already proving its value to NBC, which is down seven percent in the key 18-49 demographic four weeks into the new television season. According to Ad Age, Rock Center is generating higher ad rates ($110,000 for a 30-second spot) compared to Playboy (which pulled in about $74,000).

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The show will be a multi-topic hour – like CBS News’ 60 Minutes. NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel will have another outlet for his war reporting. And Corvo cited stories including the shooting of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, extreme weather that devastated many parts of the country last summer and the tsunami in Japan as topics that would fit on Rock Center.

It will eschew crime stories, which will continue to be handled by NBC's Dateline. Asked if Rock Center would unequivocally avoid Casey Anthony or Amanda Knox – bookings that would likely produce huge ratings windfalls for the first network that lands either of them – executive producer Rome Hartman said the broadcast would not “rule out any stories.”

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But he added that the show’s litmus test would be the smart take on a story. “If there’s nothing smart to say, then we can walk past it,” said Hartman. “But if there’s a smart way of doing any story than we’ll be interested in doing it. Obviously Dateline does a terrific job of covering real-life crime stories. So it would be silly for us to pursue [them] on a routine or regular basis.”

Capus added that the news division pursues bookings in unison and then decides where they should go.

“The way this news division works is perhaps a little bit different than others,” he said. “If I have ten people pursuing any of those stories that you just described. They’ll pursue them on behalf of NBC News and we’ll make a determination about where the best home is. One of the reasons that NBC News is different than the others is we’re not battling each other for these stories.”

But  Williams noted that Rock Center is unequivocally rooted in its hard-news mission. “We have a different charge,” he explained. “That’s never been part of our charge. It’s not why we were commissioned. Our charge was to put together the best broadcast of its type that we could, get on the air and stay there.”