Monday's inaugural edition of NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams was an unusually polished and impressive first outing for a TV newsmagazine -- good mix of stories, thoughtful and engaging conversation, even a fun surprise guest.
But with the most mindless of lead-ins, a two-hour installment of The Sing-Off, did anyone watch? And, in any event, will NBC care? And will the high quality and aspirations of Rock Center even be recognized?...
Based on Monday's opening bow, the live program (airing Mondays at 10 p.m. ET), is not setting out to reinvent the newsmagazine wheel -- just to emulate the best parts of other wheels in the history and legacy of TV newsmagazines. It didn't begin with Williams comparing the Brooklyn and Golden Gate bridges in live, side-by-side shots, as Edward R. Murrow began TV's first newsmagazine, CBS's See It Now, 60 years ago -- but trace elements of other TV newsmagazines were evident. And adapted very well, by the way.
Brian Williams introduces each report, with titles and credits presented behind him. (Thanks, 60 Minutes.) Afterward, he follows up each report by chatting with the correspondent, in the studio, and asking additional questions. (Thanks, West 57th -- even though gimmick, and that CBS show, comes from 1985.)
It's got a broad mix of hard-hitting news stories and solidly reported feature pieces. (Thanks again, 60 Minutes.) And, to heighten the tension and the immediacy, everything but the reported pieces is presented live. (Thanks, Primetime Live, back when it was live.)
The title, Rock Center, is a little strange. 30 Rock not only is a familiar NBC series title, but also a long-standing nickname for NBC's New York headquarters -- but I've never, ever heard it referred to as "Rock Center." It's either 30 Rock or Rockefeller Center, not a mixture of the two.
But for the opening hour, that's pretty much my only complaint.
The correspondent roster for Rock Center is so deep that many of them didn't even register on the opening show beyond the title credits. No Ted Koppel. No Meredith Vieira. No Natalie Morales, no Ann Curry. And where in the world is Matt Lauer?
All of them will show up in future weeks, if NBC doesn't nervously, and stupidly, yank this show off the air. But it probably won't. The network's fall development slate of scripted shows tanked so deeply, for the most part, that the short-term survival of Rock Center is all but assured. If it maintains the high level of its opening hour, long-term survival deserves to be in the cards as well.
The opening piece, "Boom Town," was reported by Harry Smith, who ventured to Williston, North Dakota, to visit a town where recent developments in oil well technology and hydraulic fracking have turned this formerly desolate region into a land of opportunity, where jobs are available by the tens of thousands.
At one point, Smith talks to three brand-new arrivals in town, who are chasing, if not the American dream, just a means to survive. It's an undoubtedly unintended, but still resonant, echo to yet another TV news landmark: Ed Murrow's 1960 Harvest of Shame special for CBS Reports, where migrant workers described, plainly and poignantly, their suffocating plight of poverty.
"Boom Town," produced by Catherine Kim, hits the same soulful notes, as Smith gently asks the three men, "Would it be too far-fetched to say desperation brought you here?"
The second story, produced by Karen Russo, highlights the bravery, as well as the reportage of NBC foreign correspondent Richard Engel. He and his team decide to follow the path of Syrian revolutionaries by being smuggled into Syria from Turkey -- with no visas, no permission, and, much to their surprise, in broad daylight. Sneaking around border guard towers, hiding in tall grass, Engel, at one point, dives into a ditch to look into the camera and say, with unbelievable objectivity, "This is where we're most exposed."
Again, it's reminiscent of a classic piece of TV news broadcasting. In this case, it's Dan Rather's infamous 1980 60 Minutes piece, in which he was smuggled by rebels into Afghanistan to witness the rebel fighters battling the Soviets. Pundits nicknamed him "Gunga Dan" for that one, and for his turban disguise.
But in visiting that region and the rebels who would be supported, then targeted, by shifting American policies, Rather turned out to be not only early, but right, to be there.
With Engel, you sense the same solid news instincts at work. And the same boldness -- as Williams told Engel in his post-report live debriefing, "You were briefly, insanely exposed."
A third piece, Williams' own report (produced by Megan Marcus) on a potential solution to the annoying problem of airline boarding practices, was a light counterpoint, but surely was intended as such.
Finally, the fourth and last reported piece, Kate Snow's "Born in the USA" (produced by Anna Schecter), tells of pregnant Chinese women flying to the United States specifically to give birth to their children in this country -- and aided by secret nurseries, nestled in suburbia, operating for precisely that purpose. Snow's story was strong, and her debrief with Williams even stronger, asking as well as answering even more questions.
As a capper, Williams ended the first Rock Center by presenting the show's first in-studio live guest: Jon Stewart. Their rapport, after so many of Williams' visit to Comedy Central's The Daily Show, was evident and loose -- and a smart segment to add, ending the show on a light tone and permitting a look at Williams' sense of humor, which he's displayed many times on NBC's own 30 Rockefeller -- sorry, that's 30 Rock.
Their conversation, covering Halloween and the Occupy Wall Street movement, was okay, but the home run came at the very end, when Stewart impulsively crammed himself into Williams' closing shot as the anchor was wrapping up the show. Stewart sat next to Williams on the couch, then nestled in closer, eventually nestling his head on Williams' shoulder.
Williams persevered, reading his closing copy and ignoring Stewart's goofy proximity, until the very end of Rock Center, when Williams signed off by ad libbing, "We're registered at Bed, Bath & Beyond."
"Nice job," Stewart told Williams, laughing, just as the show cut to black.
Indeed it was.