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Brian Williams set to debut NBC newsmagazine

Promoting the newsmagazine "Rock Center" in advance of its Halloween-night debut has been something of a tongue twister for anchor Brian Williams and his NBC News colleagues.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Promoting the newsmagazine "Rock Center" in advance of its Halloween-night debut has been something of a tongue twister for anchor Brian Williams and his NBC News colleagues.

They've talked about the program's pedigreed cast and shown off the rebuilt studio where it will originate, but what they are doing won't fully take shape for outsiders without a sense of the stories they are pursuing. And for competitive reasons, they kept mum until Wednesday, when they lifted the curtain on the opening-night lineup.

"You will very quickly feel a destination when you watch it," Williams promised. "If we've all done our jobs right, this will feel like 'Rock Center' by week two. There will already be a familiarity. Once we do enough pieces, and once we show the audience the work I already know is done, there will be a voice to this broadcast."

Those first-night stories include a Kate Snow investigation into Chinese women who give birth in the United States so their children will have U.S. citizenship, a Richard Engel report from Syria and a Harry Smith piece on a place in the U.S. where virtually everyone has a job.

Fighting off a cold, Williams sat on a couch on the show's new set in Rockefeller Center. It's his personal kingdom: On one side is the desk and video screens from "Nightly News," which moved this week to the new studio. On another is a decorative wall filled with curios long locked away, including a light from when the "Today" show broadcast from here in the 1980s and an applause sign whose origin is unclear.

NBC News executives say they are encouraged because parent company Comcast Corp. strongly backs the project and urges long-term thinking.

That's good, because "Rock Center" was dropped into the black hole that is NBC's prime-time lineup, put at 10 p.m. Eastern on Mondays because "The Playboy Club" was a quick bust. When winter comes, NBC Entertainment has another use for that time slot and "Rock Center" will move, destination unknown.

The first few months are about getting established and NBC News President Steve Capus says that high ratings aren't an expectation.

"Rock Center" will buck the recent trend of single-topic newsmagazines like "Dateline NBC" and present multiple stories each week. Former CBS anchor Smith and Snow are the primary correspondents, and producers have lined up a long list of other contributors that includes Meredith Vieira, Ted Koppel, Matt Lauer, Engel and Natalie Morales.

"Nobody has tried it for a long time because it's difficult," said David Corvo, senior executive producer for NBC. "But the fact that no one has tried this gives us an opportunity."

Koppel, the longtime "Nightline" anchor, was recruited by the "Rock Center" executive producer, Rome Hartman. They knew each other from work at BBC America, and Koppel let slip that his first story for NBC is one from Iraq that the BBC decided not to pay for.

He said he felt "Rock Center" would be a serious broadcast, an antidote to much of what is happening in broadcast news, including at his alma mater, "Nightline."

"Instead of giving the public what it needs to hear, we're giving the public news that it wants to hear, and one of these days the public is going to turn on us and say, 'Why didn't you tell us about those important things that were going on?'" he said. "They're not going to like the answer and we're not going to like the answer. We're going to say we gave you what you wanted."

Hartman said "Rock Center" wouldn't be turning up its nose at any stories, if there is something smart to say about them. "The only ones that we will walk past are the ones that are purely rubbernecking at the side of the road," he said.

The show won't be a newscast, but producers want to be flexible to move when there is a big story to tell, like the uprising in Egypt or a devastating tornado outbreak.

To that end, Williams will be live in the studio anchoring each edition.

Producers believe that's one of the things that will set "Rock Center" apart from another prominent multistory newsmagazine on the air today: CBS' "60 Minutes." It invented the genre and is still the leading practitioner.

"They are a pure ensemble, and a very good ensemble," Hartman said. "We've set up something different, where Brian is the leader of this gang. He's the anchor of this broadcast and the ringmaster. I want it to feel like it's his playlist. I want it to feel like these are stories that he would have downloaded, DVR'ed or made sure to click on. It's going to have his editorial sensibility."

He hopes that people from "60 Minutes" are watching Monday night. Better yet, he hopes they see some of the stories and curse themselves and say, "I wish we'd done that."

"60 Minutes" is an unavoidable example, Williams said.

"They do it very well, have for years, and for all I know will continue to," he said. "We will just not be that. We will have our own signature."