With anemic 'Nightside,' NBC offers less substance than CNN Headline News


November 05, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Too little and, quite literally, too late. That's the story on NBC News' overnight news service, "Nightside," which premiered early Monday morning on WMAR-TV (Channel 2).

An effort by NBC to keep its affiliates on the network farm and away from the Cable News Network, the 4 1/2 -hour, seven-day-a-week program is a bare-bones imitation of CNN's Headline News Service. It consists of anchorwomen Sara James and Sandy Gilmour alternating in half-hour shifts at an empty newsroom in Charlotte, N.C. -- a far less expensive city from which to operate than New York or Washington.

The program starts with fast (20- to 30-second) reports on hard news stories -- Monday's menu included a strike in Illinois, the opening of the Ronald Reagan library and cold weather in the upper Midwest. These reports consisted mainly of anchor-read news copy and affiliate-supplied videotape; any in-the-field reporting came from affiliate reporters.

Segments on weather, sports, business and medicine followed, with the "wheel" of stories repeating every 15 minutes -- though not all stories are repeated within every wheel. Sprinkled throughout the package are softer features.

Overall, it looks like CNN in style but comes up short on substance: There are fewer stories, particularly on the international front.

It may come up short with NBC's affiliates too. For the last few years, more and more local stations unhappy with the network have carried CNN's reports during major news events and at certain times of the day. In October 1989, for example, Channel 2 carried CNN coverage of the San Francisco earthquake because NBC was so far behind with the story.

And Channel 2, among others, has continued its relationship with CNN. Though "Nightside" airs from 2 a.m.-6:30 a.m. each night, Channel 2 is carrying only 85 minutes, starting at 3:10 a.m.; it picks up CNN's headline news at 4:35 a.m.

(The late start is due to WMAR's scheduling of "Inside Edition" after the "Tonight" show and then a rebroadcast of the local 11 p.m. news following "Late Night with David Letterman" and "Later" with Bob Costas.)

NBC declined to release an exact budget for the show, but producer Bob Horner told the Los Angeles Times, "My staff gets mad at me when I say we produce it cheap, but we feel adequately funded and we don't have to get $12 million in advertising revenue a year just to stay on the air."

The other broadcast networks are also gearing up their late-night news efforts. ABC has announced a January debut for its overnight newscast from Washington. And CBS has told its affiliates of plans to expand "Nightwatch" -- a laid-back interview show that debuted in 1982 -- into a hard-news competitor.

Both will have to do better than NBC to succeed. At the end of a "Nightside" feature about a gospel-music singing postman, Gilmour told viewers, "You might say that postman always sings twice."

F: You might say this show is nothing to leave cable for.

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