When I was growing up, every Sunday night after dinner, my parents watched 60 Minutes. At first, my younger brother and I saw the program as a wasted hour before The Simpsons or Malcolm In The Middle, but as we got older, we started watching along with our parents. On a Sunday night, at the end of the week, after a week of work or school and a busy weekend of various other activities, a newsmagazine like 60 Minutes was dependable at providing in-depth news stories that went beyond a nightly news program. It wasn’t the equivalent of The New Yorker or The Economist, but was somewhere between those and Time. The prospect of a weeknight newsmagazine kicking off the week is a novel idea, and Rock Center with Brian Williams aims to fill the gap left by the massively disappointing failure of The Playboy Club with something completely different.
Rock Center has a fair amount of strengths. Brian Williams is without a doubt the best nightly news anchor on the major networks, so more airtime for him in a less stilted environment, backed by a group of some of the best news contributors possible makes the show appealing. They’re reliable, interesting, and focusing on topics in the national consciousness but just outside the mainstream news cycle.
The stories are current in the 60 Minutes sense; they're not the day’s top stories but relating to topics on the minds of the average American: jobs, immigration, the Middle East, air travel. The specifics of the pieces don’t particularly matter, but as far as first episodes go, the first line of contributors brings in some very polished pieces in the quick turnaround time NBC needed for this show to fill the timeslot. First there’s a story from Harry Smith about a booming job market surrounding new oil fields in North Dakota and the rest of the North Plains. Next, there was an incredibly compelling piece of investigative journalism from Richard Engel on secret protest videos coming out of Syria. Then Brian Williams offered a short halftime segment on making boarding airplanes more efficient. The last serious story from Kate Snow was on what are pejoratively called anchor babies, the children of foreign women who come to the US to give birth to ensure American citizenship. Jon Stewart wrapped things up as the first studio guest. All the stories were informative, but watching Rock Center is a bit like reading a months-old copy of a magazine in a doctor’s office waiting room: It offers some good journalism, but it’s not required viewing for people who read the news or watch a nightly program.
As a newsmagazine, Rock Center is kind of a cross between Time and Newsweek on television. It's fairly hard-hitting, centering on big issues that start big conversations. The brief interview segments offer a chance for Williams to show off how he can pick out what parts of a story need filling out, but the weakest segment turned out to be the final interview with Stewart. That segment was clearly set up to be the back 10 or so pages of a magazine, where all the short arts and entertainment pieces fall, after the serious news, but Stewart didn’t play along, trying to go back to the incredible Syria story and Engel’s skill at finding that story. It was a moment that didn’t live up to the usual Williams/Stewart rapport viewers expect from the anchor’s appearances on The Daily Show.
Having five segments, three medium length stories, a short midsection, and a capstone interview puts Rock Center in a strange position. It’s an hour long, so the stories are longer than the short pieces on a usual nightly news program, but they aren’t as long as 60 Minutes stories. Instead of airing fewer segments with more in-depth analysis, Rock Center opts for giving a good overview of more stories with less analysis, plus a minute or two of rapid-fire wrap-up questions with Williams and each contributor. The show uses the studio space in a very random fashion, putting the Smith interview on couches, then the Engel and Snow interviews at a small table, then the Stewart interview back at the couches, with Williams up and around the studio space for introductions. Why exactly the studio has such a wide variety of spaces isn’t really clear. Perhaps the more serious stories got the table and the more relaxed the couches, but the choice is arbitrary and doesn’t add anything in particular.
Rock Center is a fine news program, with a great, amiable host and a lineup of talented journalist contributors doing admirable work, but every week can't be like this first episode. The show can’t get a guest on par with Jon Stewart every time, even if he was solidly in puff piece form instead of anything informative. Monday also seems like an odd day for a newsmagazine. At the beginning of a week, the show seems to be setting news story conversations for the week to come, but other programs like the Sunday morning shows and 60 Minutes wrap up the week with all of the stories from the past week. It’s an odd time slot, but it's well-produced with skilled journalists, which at least makes Rock Center a better quality show than The Playboy Club, but that isn’t going to make the show must-watch television.