NBC's magazine show hits emotional buttons

March 31, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,TV Critic

"Dateline NBC," the network's new magazine show featuring Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips, is wall-to-wall touchy-feely, come-on-baby-light-my-fire TV journalism.

There's a story on a 79-year-old widow in rural Iowa who lost her life's savings to a Washington lawyer who specializes in misleading direct mail solicitations. The segment features reporter Brian Ross as the knight on white horse championing her cause, tracking down the lawyer and confronting him with the ultimate weapon, a videotape of his victim's anguish. It will make you angry.

Then there's the story of a mother whose 5-year-old son died as a result of being given the wrong medication at Duke University Medical Center. "I know they didn't mean to do it," the dead boy's mother says. "But . . . when I want to talk to my son now, I go to his grave." This one will make you angry, sad and maybe even worried about what your doctor or pharmacist is giving you.

"Dateline NBC," which premieres at 10 tonight on WMAR-TV (Channel 2), is what we have come to think of as grade A, prime-time TV journalism.

As the TV universe changed and networks were forced to downsize in recent years, ABC and CBS led the way in saving money by putting on prime-time newsmagazine shows, which cost only about half as much to make as sitcoms and dramas. CBS just spun "Street Stories" off from "48 Hours" and "60 Minutes." ABC, which has had much success with "PrimeTime Live" this year, is readying another new show for head-to-head competition with "60 Minutes" next fall.

NBC has tried and tried, too, but its efforts have become an industry joke. "Dateline NBC" is the network's 18th attempt at a prime-time news show. The most recent bust was "Real Life With Jane Pauley."

Given that history and the fact that NBC has the worst news operation in the broadcast and cable industry, only a fool would predict certain success for "Dateline NBC."

But here's why it might work: The series is shamelessly imitating CBS' "60 Minutes" in its use of news stories structured along the lines of basic entertainment formulas, and it is continually sending out the message that says, "We care about you, and we are on your side." If that message sounds familiar, by the way, it should. It's the one local TV news operations send out in their promotions day and night.

Notice how many reaction shots there are of Phillips as survivors tell him about children who were injured or died because a doctor or nurse misread a poorly labeled bottle of medicine. Each shot shows him looking more and more caring and sympathetic. It gets to the point where you wonder who the story is about -- the victims and survivors or Phillips.

Then notice how the camera treats the Food and Drug Administration bureaucrat who is made to answer for lack of guidelines on labeling. He's given a tight, close-up shot that makes him look nervous, defensive, uncaring and somehow guilty.

Of course, no one is made to seem more concerned and caring than Pauley, who reports a touching piece about two men born with Down's syndrome who are living fuller lives because their parents provided them with much early education and challenges. They will remind you a lot of Corky (Chris Burke) on "Life Goes On." But these are real people, while "Life Goes On" is a TV show about a make-believe family.

"Dateline NBC" is involving and moving -- that's good prime-time TV. But is it good TV journalism? Do you know something you didn't know before you started watching? Or is it mainly just an hour of having your emotional buttons pushed?

Come on, "Dateline," light my fire.

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