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‘Rock Center with Brian Williams': Why Isn’t the Evening News More like This?

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Brian Williams is my favorite network news anchor. That is not to say that I watch him very often on NBC Nightly News. Let’s not get crazy here! But I love his dry humor and sharp observations; I like his work on 30 Rock and his appearances on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. If I were at all inclined to watch a network evening newscast, I would watch his. As it is, well, I just like to know that he’s out there.

All of which is to say I looked forward to last night’s premiere of Rock Center as a chance to see Williams out of his usual environment of reading headlines and sassing Liz Lemon in the elevator lobby. But the show also made me wonder, as a non-regular viewer of the nightly news: Might I watch the news a little more often if it were more like this show?

By that I don’t mean the, ahem, “funny” segment of Rock Center, Williams’ awkward closing interview with old pal Stewart (more about that in a minute). I mean the rest of the show, which avoided the melodrama of most TV newsmagazines (other than 60 Minutes) and recycled headlines of evening newscasts in favor of a few brightly produced and quasi-topical news features.

The first night’s selection of reports were well selected to be off the day’s news without trying to chase the headlines: a Richard Engel adventure into restricted Syria, for instance, echoed the upheaval there and around the Middle East, while a Harry Smith foray into an oil-boom town in North Dakota was a nicely elliptical way of looking at the employment problem. (Meanwhile, a snarky Williams bit on airline seating practices was funnier than much of what Jay Leno produced for NBC in the same 10 p.m. time slot.)

The pieces weren’t flawless: Smith’s pretty much ignored the huge controversies around the “fracking” method used to extract North Dakota’s oil, and a Kate Snow report on “birth tourism” by affluent foreigners seeking U.S. citizenship for their babies seemed inflated without many numbers to back up the practice’s real scope. But the idea felt right: the pieces were to a nightly-news report what a magazine piece is to a newspaper article.

Of course, these days newspaper articles are more like magazine pieces, as the metabolism of news speeds up and makes recaps of the day’s events more and more outdated by 6:30 p.m. (This sped-up pace affects us in magazines too, of course — a weekly newsmagazine like TIME is now more like an old monthly, except when it’s on the Web like with this blog, in which case it becomes more like an old newspaper.)

Might that not be a better philosophy for NBC Nightly News? Yes, I watch enough nightly news to know that newscasts have made more use of longer reports in recent years, and they have only a half hour, whereas Rock Center has an hour. But given how widely available breaking news is through the course of the day, why not dispense with that commodity in a quick roundup at the top of the hour, then give us a couple thorough pieces each night, on the model of Rock Center? PBS NewsHour (which has twice the time) does this to an extent, but on a public-TV budget it has to rely heavily on interviews. A network like NBC could use its resources for the kind of produced segments we see on Rock Center.

As for the interviews: Williams and Stewart are both intelligent, funny men, but this proved that Williams does better as a guest on Stewart’s show. It’s refreshing for Williams to break out his dry wit in front of a studio audience; in Rock Center‘s vacuum-silent studio, the exchanges were just uncomfortable, especially as Williams tried to step into Stewart’s funny-interviewer role. (“You were getting your man-crush on,” Williams said as Stewart praised Engel’s earlier report.)

Ironically, the Stewart interview worked best when it turned serious, as Williams asked the Daily Show host his thoughts on Occupy Wall Street. Stewart ramblingly tried to connect the “gestalt” of OWS and Rock Center‘s reports on Syria and unemployment — not completely successfully, but it was an example of a kind of bigger-picture synthesizing of the news that Rock Center should be trying to do itself. (Either through Williams or maybe guest commentators.) That, again, would be a value-add to what we usually get from the nightly news — and it would be another worthwhile change for it to adopt.

Of course, I don’t expect NBC to remake Nightly News on the model of Rock Center anytime soon, for a couple of reasons. One, the evening news is one of the few bright spots in NBC’s ratings — while Rock Center, sadly, debuted with even lower ratings than the quickly canceled Playboy Club. And while expanding the nightly news beyond the headlines might impress people like me — who already follow a lot of other news sources — the smarter if less adventurous business move is probably to program the evening news for people who actually watch it: the legacy audience of people who do want a headline summary at 6:30.

Either way, of course, there’s still a demand for a guy like Brian Williams, in late night or early evening. Rock Center may not be a ratings smash, and not all its experiments may work. But the good news is, Williams and Stewart can both keep their day jobs.

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