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You don’t have to look far to find a tribute to NBC’s newsmagazine Dateline in popular culture.
In the new Hulu series Only Murders in the Building, Selena Gomez’s character Mabel Mora mentions her habitual watching of the show. It also features Tina Fey playing Cinda Canning, the host of a true-crime podcast and a not-so-subtle nod to Dateline correspondent Andrea Canning.
While it began life as just another broadcast newsmagazine, the show has taken on a life of its own in recent years, leaning into the true-crime genre and riding that wave as it picked up steam across streaming and podcasts.
The long-running newsmagazine will kick off its 30th season Sept. 24, and NBC is planning a cross-platform blitz around its return, including a special podcast episode set for Sept. 22, where anchor Lester Holt and correspondents Canning, Josh Mankiewicz, Natalie Morales, Keith Morrison and Dennis Murphy discuss their favorite episodes; and a weeklong marathon on Peacock, highlighting 30 of the show’s most memorable episodes.
“I think that we built a community of viewers and users, so to speak,” says Dateline senior executive producer David Corvo. “We have a loyal audience that we discovered, I think, with them, a mutual interest in true crime specifically, and storytelling in general.”
Adds Mankiewicz, “I joined a Dateline that did all kinds of stories. I had been a political reporter before coming here, and this was a wonderful opportunity to learn longform journalism. I didn’t see the true-crime wave coming, but I am delighted that it’s here.”
The true-crime genre has exploded in popularity, driven by podcasts and streaming, where the somewhat evergreen nature of the stories and the enthralling mysteries behind them keep viewers and listeners hooked. It has worked to Dateline’s advantage, with the show turning its existing TV stories into audio podcasts, and more recently creating wholly original audio programs.
“The podcasts are just such a natural extension of the show,” Canning says. “I have so many friends who listen to the podcasts in their car, and it is just so easy to turn the show into a podcast.”
One thing that has distinguished Dateline from many of its TV news counterparts is its commitment to putting its correspondents front and center, in some cases making them part of the story.
“I think people really respond to the storytelling, and the way that each correspondent has a unique way of telling a story, and they really embrace their own unique storytelling voices, and we encourage that,” says executive producer Liz Cole.
“We thought, when we were developing the program, that was one of our strengths, that all of our correspondents could really write, could really interview, and had the confidence to tell a story in their voice. Every one of them is a little bit unique, but every one of them exists within the Dateline universe,” Corvo says. “That is all designed to try and emphasize that these are not abstract stories from an institution, these are personal stories, very difficult personal stories that are being told by specific real people that you can listen to and relate to, and hopefully respect and trust along the way.”
Canning recounts segments in which she escaped from the trunk of a car, and when DNA phenotyping was able to re-create her appearance. “They didn’t know it was me, and the picture that came out was fantastic,” she says. “It came out looking just like me, I couldn’t believe it.”
In some cases, the story is even more personal.
Mankiewicz recounts his story about the murder of Dr. Steve Pitt, who was a personal friend, and who was one of the six victims of a killer in Arizona in 2018.
“The office texted me while I was driving to a wedding and taking a couple of days off. I nearly drove off the road when I made the mistake of looking at my phone,” he says. “I had just seen him 10 days earlier, and now I was covering his murder.”
That personal connection, whether deadly serious or meant to be engaging and informative, is a big part of what makes the newsmagazine tick, both on TV and on newer platforms.
It is also why, whether at a conference or even a football game, Dateline correspondents frequently find themselves as the center of attention.
“I was at a Navy-Air Force game this weekend, and people everywhere were like, ‘We love Dateline!’ and a teenager on a balcony leaned over and was like ‘Miss Andrea! I Love your show!’ I was just like, I can’t believe this is happening at a college football game,” Canning says.
“When you walk through something like CrimeCon with all the Dateline correspondents, it is crazy, it is like walking with The Beatles through Times Square,” Cole says. “A couple of years ago we had to escape through the kitchen, because we couldn’t get away from the crowds. It really was like a rock band or something,” Corvo added.
But while the correspondents may be the “stars,” the story always rules the day.
“I think it is the way we tell the stories, and the intimacy people feel with Andrea, and me, and Lester, and Dennis, and Natalie [and Keith], and I think that is a big part of it,” Mankiewicz says. “We draw a very fine line at Dateline between the storytelling and the story.”
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