NBC’S venerable newsmagazine, Dateline, has lasted 28 seasons due to its ability to evolve. Today, NBC’s longest-running primetime series is a multiplatform brand bringing mostly true-crime stories to primetime television, cable, syndication and now, podcasts.
“We’ve been a very adaptable show that’s been able to change over the years,” David Corvo, Dateline NBC’s senior executive producer, said. “We have a strong sense of story and we use that skill to cover almost any topic we need to cover. It’s allowed us to adapt to the changing environment.”
Dateline premiered on NBC on March 31, 1992, airing on Tuesday nights with Stone Phillips and Jane Pauley in the anchor chairs. In 1994, newsmagazine Now with Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric became Dateline Wednesday, and that same year NBC added a third night, Friday. In 1997, NBC added Monday nights to the schedule. At its peak in 1999 and 2000, Dateline was airing five nights a week. NBC began to cut the show back in spring 2001, and by 2004 the Tuesday slot was eliminated. Dateline remained a utility vehicle for the network, bouncing around the schedule as needed and filling gaps but always airing. For the past several years, it has found a permanent home on Fridays.
Dateline began as a news and human-interest magazine, reporting longer versions of stories that were in the news. About a decade in, the show turned toward true crime, a genre that’s become incredibly popular. While it still predominantly focuses on true crime, it occasionally takes a detour. Two years ago, the show won a Emmy for its reporting on sexual harassment, and it has also dipped into such topics as the sexual abuse of female Olympic gymnasts and the case against Manhattan financier Jeffrey Epstein. Just a few weeks ago, the show won an Emmy for an interview it did with one of Bill Cosby’s accusers, Corvo said.
Long Form on Fridays
This season, Dateline is trying something new, and at the same time a bit retro in the age of ultrafast information. It is airing two-hour episodes every Friday night at 9/8 p.m CT.
“We spend most of our time trying to find really good true-crime stories. We are looking for very rich stories with lots of twists and turns that have very interesting characters, very sympathetic people and victims who will let us into their stories,” Corvo said.
“Our goal is to fill those two hours with one story, and in general, once we’ve gotten into the mode of doing two-hour stories, we don’t seem to have trouble finding them,” said Liz Cole, executive producer.
Producing those shows takes a varied amount of time, with the average episode taking about six months to produce.
“We’ve done a story in as little as a week and as long as three years,” Cole said. “We might jump on a story when a crime first happens or we might wait for the trial. Most of our stories have resolution, so that’s what we’re waiting for.”
The turn toward true crime had another advantage that perhaps Dateline didn’t see initially: It has made the show’s episodes evergreen. That’s created an entirely new business around Dateline, allowing it to air almost in perpetuity on MSNBC and other NBC cable networks and to be sold into broadcast syndication, where it airs both as a daily strip and in primetime on Fox’s MyNet TV.
Repackaged episodes of Dateline also air on NBCUniversal-owned cable networks E!, Oxygen and USA Network, as well as on Discovery-owned ID and OWN. These runs are repackaged by NBC News under the Peacock Productions banner, and in syndication all NBC branding is stripped.
“The broadcast television audiences aren’t as big as they were a generation ago, so now you don’t just play for that audience,” Corvo said. “You have to accumulate an audience in as many places as you can.”
Internationally, the show airs in Canada and on 24-hour news network Orbit News in Europe and the Middle East. It also broadcasts on Australia’s Seven Network.
And now, Dateline has evolved into podcasts. “The Thing About Pam,” released in August, immediately hit No. 1 on the Apple Podcast charts. The podcast tells the story of the 2011 murder of Betsy Faria and her husband Russ’s conviction for that crime even though he continually said he was innocent. But there was far more to the story, as reported by veteran Dateline correspondent (and true-crime icon) Keith Morrison.
Dateline also offers an almost straight rip-and-play of existing episodes, but more offerings like “The Thing About Pam” are coming down the road from other Dateline correspondents. The current correspondent stable includes Andrea Canning, Josh Mankiewicz and Dennis Murphy, with NBC News anchor Lester Holt hosting. The correspondents are well-loved by Dateline’s many fans who seek them out across social media and at events such as CrimeCon, which takes places in cities like New Orleans and Orlando, Florida.
With NBCUniversal preparing to launch its streaming service, Peacock, what’s next for Dateline is an open question. But its status as a multiplatform champ should set it up for success.
“I think this idea of how you distribute your program will continue to take more of our time,” said Corvo. “We have to keep looking for opportunities, not just wait for people to knock on our door and then decide whether [that opportunity] is right for us. How people are going to consume television going forward is a pretty tough question to answer right now.”
Already, people are consuming Dateline on all sorts of platforms in all sorts of ways, assuring the show’s survival into television’s next age.