Here’s Hoping for 'Rock Center'

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So I know the editor-in-chief of an 80-year-old well-respected TV industry publication is not supposed to play favorites when it comes to the success of new shows, but as some of you may already know, I don’t care.

I was very much on the record before the fall launches that I wanted Fox’s Terra Nova to succeed because it was the big, ballsy audacious bet that the broadcast networks need to be making.

And now, I am pulling back out my pom-poms for NBC’s Brian Williams-fronted newsmagazine debuting tonight, Rock Center.  But I am not just hoping it stays on the air for a long time, I am more so hoping it does so by being closer to 60 Minutes than the tabloid crap that litters so many alleged “news” shows these days.

And that’s going to mean trudging through some next-day ratings stories in the media that don’t exactly scream smash hit.  You’ll see headlines tomorrow like “modest start” - modest being the TV trade publications’ nice description of something that disappointed.

So know this going in: regarding the ratings, the new show is not going to do a number in the 18-49 demo.  It just won’t.  And that’s not a knock on Brian Williams’ Q score. Newsmagazines don’t rate on weeknights in primetime, or there would be more of them, period. Those who like to pile on NBC for its beaten-down primetime fortunes will have another whipping boy, most likely.

I just hope that whatever this show ends up looking like as it evolves on the run in coming weeks, it doesn’t chase those numbers. I hope it isn’t afraid to be smarter than the room and put out stories that won’t rate like a profile on the latest celeb behaving badly and the mother who controls her, but will actually raise the level of programming quality on NBC.

And while that kind of show is a fool’s errand if you are chasing the 18-49 demo, that doesn’t mean it can’t be a success.  Advertising Age says the spots are selling for six-figures and if done right, the show can bring a new prestige franchise to NBC with names like Harry Smith and Ted Koppel, while amortizing out some of those big news division costs, which is nice for a bottom line that needs it like every news division does.

And yes, it eats up an hour of NBC’s primetime at a low cost.  Don’t bring up the Leno disaster; this is different.  NBC has no bench this fall and basically is just trying to scratch and claw its way through to January, when it hopes to follow the old Fox American Idol model with The Voice, which it hopes will lead to a little network resurgence coming out of the Super Bowl and with its top rookie hopeful, its beloved Smash.  But this show can be more than a stopgap — it can help bring some credibility and prestige back to NBC’s primetime, even if not in the overnights, if NBC really sticks with it and grows it.

We don’t really know what this show will look like down the road, except like any show that it probably won’t look a lot like tonight’s debut: that’s the great thing about a show like this. It can be tinkered with on the fly much easier than scripted fare.  I just hope that if and when those stories come about the “modest” ratings in the 18-49 demo, NBC stays the course by going against the grain and doing a news show that isn’t afraid to be smart and wonky.

And of course that won’t happen in every segment - even standard bearer 60 Minutes has done some ratings-chasing segments like its pandering Conan O’Brien piece in the midst of his media-adored, woe-is-me tour.  That’s okay; you also have to put some food on the table, so to speak.

Yes, my opinion is a bit archaic and one could argue unrealistic given what works on television and the real-life economics of the business. I’m okay with that. It still needs to be said.

I still like to think that broadcast television can do some things others can’t — and one of them is being a little smarter and classier than the room at times.  Here’s hoping Rock Center is a throwback to that idea, and one that sticks around.

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