NBC crows about ratings and new Brokaw newsmagazine TURNED ON IN L.A. -- Fall Preview

July 23, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Los Angeles -- Who would have thought three months ago, in the wake of the "Dateline" debacle, that Tom Brokaw and NBC News President Andrew Lack would be crowing about ratings?

* Ratings for "Dateline" are now higher than they were before the rigged test-crash of a GM truck was exposed in March. The newsmagazine show now wins its time period almost every week.

* "Today" is back in a tie for first place with ABC's "Good Morning America" after running second for more than a year.

* And "The NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw" has moved ahead of CBS since the network paired Dan Rather and Connie Chung.

"Yeah, I heard something to that effect," Brokaw says when asked about his newscast beating Rather and Chung the past two weeks.

"Quite frankly," he says, "I'm mystified by [CBS'] explanation for the [anchor] change.

"I don't think Dan will be traveling any more than before," he adds. "I'm mystified by their thinking."

Lack and anchorman Brokaw were at a press session yesterday to talk about NBC's latest prime-time newsmagazine, "Now With Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric," which premieres Aug. 18.

And they had some news to announce: "Now" will be telecast live rather than be taped.

But that's not very big news. CBS' "48 Hours" started out live, as did ABC's "Prime Time Live," which still carries the tag even though most of it is on tape.

Live is riskier to produce, though. And going that route is indicative of a new confidence that NBC News seems to be feeling since Michael Gartner was forced to resign in March and Lack took over. "My greatest concern when I took over was 'Nightly News,' " Lack says. "It had no leadership per se, other than the strong hand of Tom Brokaw. . . . It was leaderless in terms of its concentration and focus.

"We also didn't have a strong ability to get on the air in crisis and special events situations with the ease and the confidence that we ought to have."

In terms of "Dateline," Lack says that NBC's research showed viewers returning within three weeks after the network announced a series of corrective measures following Gartner's resignation.

He was asked if that surprised him, in light of the pronouncements that NBC News had lost its credibility with the "Dateline" incident.

"The accurate thing I would have said is that they risked their credibility," Lack says. "But once they handled the situation honestly, openly and professionally, the audience said, 'OK, let's move on.'

"Every news organization has had incidents like this," he says.

Lack adds credibility is the reason NBC has Brokaw co-anchoring "Now," even though it might mean that NBC is spreading its anchorman a little thin.

"The advantage to bringing Brokaw to the table," Lack says, "is that he has a credibility. Of course, Tom can't do everything, so we'll have to make adjustments elsewhere."

Lack says some "reorganization" will be done with the hourlong "Tom Brokaw Reports" specials, but that Brokaw's new prime-time duties will not cut into his involvement in "Nightly News."

Going live means that after Brokaw finishes his last updates for the West Coast version of "Nightly News" at about 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday nights, he'll change hats and get ready to go back on the air live at 9 p.m. for "Now."

"There is a possibility that I'll be spread too thin," Brokaw says. "I've cut out some outside commitments to make more time this year. . . . We'll just have to see."

Brokaw says he's not feeling any pressure, though. In fact, he says, "Things couldn't be better personally and professionally.

"I recently went back to South Dakota -- that's where I grew up -- and I was asked what my aspirations are. I said I wanted to get an earring, a tattoo, a big Harley and a ponytail and change my life completely.

"But life really is very good for me right now. . . . I have a professional satisfaction beyond my wildest expectations 25 years ago.

"Politics, by the way, are not part of my future," he says, referring to reports that he would run for Congress. Brokaw sounds pleased, and Lack seems to be feeling bold.

By the end of the session, he was drawing a bead on ABC News and "World News Tonight With Peter Jennings." This spring, comparing anything from NBC News with ABC News -- the best news operation in television -- would have been almost %o unthinkable. But it seemed to play in the wake of the latest ratings news.

"I'd like to believe we're producing a very competitive newscast with 'Nightly News,' " Lack says. "And I'd like to see us be No. 1."

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