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NBC dismisses criticism of 'Dateline' shows

'Friends', 'Frasier' specials just part of newsmagazine's content
/ Source: The Associated Press

Want to get an NBC executive’s blood boiling? Just suggest that “Dateline NBC” may have besmirched its reputation with its series of shows about the network’s entertainment fare.

“I took some grief from the critics,” said NBC News President Neal Shapiro. “I think the audience was totally understanding.”

In one month, NBC’s signature newsmagazine devoted some five hours of programming to the season finale of “The Apprentice” and the series finales of “Friends” and “Frasier.”

No one argues they weren’t legitimate stories. Other networks, newspapers and magazines all covered them. More than 105 million people watched the three shows.

Yet the programming was evidence, to some, of skewed priorities. Competitor “60 Minutes II” provided a clear contrast last month by unearthing photos of alleged prisoner abuse by Americans in Iraq.

CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves, addressing thousands of advertisers recently, couldn’t resist needling NBC.

“While ‘Dateline NBC’ was busy shilling for ‘Friends’ and ‘Frasier,’ our two editions of ‘60 Minutes’ were breaking news that will change the world forever,” he said.

Certainly CBS shouldn’t be exempt from criticism. Its aggressive coverage of “Survivor” on “The Early Show” set a template for the promotion of entertainment within a news broadcast.

Newsmagazines tilt toward celebrities
In a broader context, NBC’s choice illustrates how viewer demand is tilting the mix of network newsmagazines more toward celebrity and entertainment news, something Barbara Walters pointed out a few months ago in stepping down as host of ABC’s “20/20.”

Shapiro said the audience has always understood that “Dateline NBC” offers a variety of stories. Overshadowed during the past two months was a well-received “Dateline” investigation on racial profiling and Tom Brokaw’s prestigious Peabody Award for a story on affirmative action at the University of Michigan.

“If Time magazine or Newsweek decides to devote 15 pages to Harry Potter, I don’t think people say, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t read the front of Time magazine anymore,”’ he said. “I think they understand it’s a magazine.”

“Dateline NBC” offered hour-long tributes when “Cheers” and “Seinfeld” left the air, he said.

If the big events on “The Apprentice,” “Friends” and “Frasier” hadn’t happened within a month of each other, Shapiro believes no one would have noticed the “Dateline NBC” stories.

He’s not alone at being aggravated at NBC. His boss, Jeff Zucker, who oversees both NBC News and Entertainment, gets particularly testy when the subject is brought up.

Shapiro, a longtime executive producer of “Dateline NBC,” said the newsmagazine has never been given the respect it deserves. The broadcast barely survived its disastrous first season a decade ago, when producers staged a collision to illustrate fire dangers in a General Motors truck.

That’s why, some critics say, NBC should be particularly protective of its reputation.

Cheapening the brand?“The ‘Dateline’ brand is cheapened every time it’s prostituted to shill for other NBC shows, and the last thing anyone at the network should want is to drag down the reputation of NBC News,” wrote columnist Phil Rosenthal of the Chicago Sun-Times.

What’s disappointing is that each hour represents less time that NBC News could be digging into the fragile state of the world, said Marquette University professor Philip Seib, author of “Beyond the Front Lines: How the News Media Cover a World Shaped by War.”

“It’s condescending to the audience,” Seib said. “I think it assumes the audience would rather have an hour of promotion than news.”

But NBC executives believe they are serving their audience, and their business.

“The shows we did that people have issues with, the audience certainly watched,” Shapiro said. “There’s no doubt about that. The ratings speak for themselves.” (Each of the shows, which ran as specials, outrated the typical fare in their time slots).

“Dateline NBC” has also reported on cultural phenomena on other networks, like “American Idol” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” he said.

While Moonves said that “I don’t think you’ll see two hours of ‘60 Minutes’ devoted to ‘Everybody Loves Raymond”’ when it goes off the air next year, Shapiro said he wouldn’t mind reporting extensively on the CBS comedy.

He suspects, though, that CBS News will have much greater access to star Ray Romano.

Public not concerned
Joseph Angotti, chairman of the broadcast department at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, said five years ago he would have joined the people taking shots at NBC News. Not anymore.

“The line between news and entertainment is so blurred that I don’t think people are concerned whether or not ‘Dateline’ does a serious, tough journalistic story and next week does a little fluffy thing that promotes their own network,” said Angotti, a former NBC News executive. “I just don’t think people care that much anymore.”

The criticism — even some of his own — now sounds archaic.

“It’s sad,” he said. “It’s sad that it’s happening to me and it’s sad that it’s happening to the public. But it’s a fact of life.”

A potential way out of these controversies is staring NBC News right in the face. Maria Shriver is interviewing Las Vegas illusionist Roy Horn, of Siegfried and Roy, who was mauled by a tiger last year, to coincide with a cartoon NBC is launching about lions in the team’s act.

Because Shriver, California’s first lady, quit NBC News to avoid potential conflicts of interest, the interview is being done under the NBC entertainment banner.

Should NBC try the same thing the next time Katie Couric is dispatched to chat with stars of an NBC show?

“It might save me some time on the phone not talking to critics,” Shapiro said. “Would it be worth not calling it ‘Dateline’ for that? Maybe.”