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‘Dateline’ investigates own backyard

Is the news magazine losing its credibility by devoting so much time to covering its own shows?
/ Source: Hollywood Reporter

Now that NBC and Universal are officially joined at the hip, with the completion of their merger last week, it’s time for “Dateline NBC” to get started on some big-time investigation into how Jurassic Park: The Ride really works and the success of Universal CityWalk.

(MSNBC is a joint venture of NBC and Microsoft.)

It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it. And “Dateline” seems uniquely qualified, given the show’s penchant of late for covering its own backyard — and front yard — so thoroughly.

Yes, nobody has been more on top of NBC Universal lately than has “Dateline NBC,” which has blown the lid off not only the “Apprentice” phenomenon but also the finales of “Friends” and “Frasier” with special long editions dedicated solely to them.

Perhaps we can soon expect a very special edition of “Dateline NBC” about...“Dateline NBC!” What’s Stone Phillips really like? What’s his favorite Donald Trump story?

This is not to imply that “Dateline” is the only offender in the blurring of those quickly disappearing lines between news and entertainment. CBS hypes its “Survivor” castaways on “The Early Show” and “The Late Show With David Letterman” and anywhere else it can. Local TV stations shamelessly offer “news” stories linked to big programming priorities for their networks. It’s the way of the sweeps world.

But lately it seems that “Dateline NBC” has veered disturbingly off course in its zeal to hype the shows surrounding it on the peacock’s primetime lineup. It’s all fine and dandy to do a big farewell to “Friends” — but why under the “Dateline” banner? Does that somehow give the special more heft? Instead, it seems to open up the “Dateline” franchise to questions of journalistic substance.

Can't ignore pop cultureSomeone who doesn’t find the scrutiny of “Dateline’s” integrity to be terribly fair is NBC Universal Television Group president Jeff Zucker, who oversees NBC News and NBC Entertainment. Zucker maintains that, to a large degree, “Dateline” is a victim of circumstances.

“Arguably, the end of ‘Friends’ and ‘Frasier’ and the whole ‘Apprentice’ phenomenon represented the three biggest pop cultural touchstones of the television year,” he says. “If you say ‘Dateline’ can’t cover them because they’re on the same network, it’s like saying that Time magazine and CNN shouldn’t write about or give attention to ‘The Sopranos’ because they’re all Time Warner.”

Well, not exactly. It might be closer to Time positioning a story about “The Sopranos” as part of a roundup of national news, or CNN running a 10-minute “Sopranos” piece and nothing about Iraq.

Zucker disagrees.

“What the media doesn’t like to cover is the fact that ‘Dateline’ just finished a tremendous hour of journalism on ‘driving while black,’ which culminated a 14-month investigation in Cincinnati,” he says. “No one wrote about Tom Brokaw’s two hours in Iraq.”

The fact is that “Dateline NBC” will produce 140 hours of programming this year “and only five hours of it is related to NBC,” Zucker stresses. “That’s less than 4 percent of all of our reporting. So you’ve got to understand the full picture.”

Zucker also says that no one has called to ask why “Primetime Thursday” and “20/20” on ABC packaged shows feeding into the “Friends” frenzy — or why “60 Minutes” ran an interview with Candice Bergen when “Murphy Brown” went off the air.

“Trust me, we’re always conscious of ‘Dateline’ maintaining its integrity and the line not blurring,” Zucker says. “But I don’t see the value in allowing other people to talk about our shows while we ignore them — simply because we’re worried about you guys calling and questioning it.”