‘Dateline’ to Mark 10th Anniversary

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Taking over at “Dateline NBC” shortly after the fallout from a fake truck crash swept out his predecessor, executive producer Neal Shapiro called a staff meeting to find out what stories were ready for upcoming shows.

Well, came the reply, there’s a report on the Internal Revenue Service.

And ... that was it. The cupboard was bare.

Shapiro knew he had to move fast simply to fill time.

Given that disastrous start, it’s a small miracle that “Dateline NBC” is around to celebrate a 10th anniversary.

It has not only survived, but thrived. The newsmagazine, with Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips as hosts, will mark the moment with a special at 10 p.m. Tuesday filled with highlights from its past.


It’s a long psychic distance from the first season, when producers staged a collision to illustrate fire dangers in a General Motors truck. The scandal brought down an NBC News president as well as the “Dateline” leadership.

The lingering memory of that incident is one of the things that prevents journalists from giving “Dateline” the same respect accorded “60 Minutes” and “20/20.” That’s always rankled people at NBC.

“It gets the respect from the viewers,” said Shapiro, now NBC News president. “‘Dateline’ can show up at any time slot, promoted or unpromoted, and it gets viewers.”

“Dateline NBC,” which now airs three nights a week, is NBC News’ most profitable show after “Today” and helped elevate Shapiro, its executive producer for eight years, to his new job.

One of the show’s signatures is its unpredictability, he said. An interview with Liza Minnelli about her marriage, a two-hour “true crime” story about a high school gang that called itself the Lords of Chaos and an award-winning investigation into insurance fraud can all fit under its wide umbrella.

“It’s so fluid,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. “It can go from these stories that are really goofy ... to good, solid investigative journalism.


“It’s almost as if ‘Dateline’ is the perpetual Trojan horse,” he said. “It keeps using its legitimacy as a newsmagazine to sneak in cheesy stories and at the same time, it uses its entertainment-oriented cheesiness to sneak in serious stories.”

The success ended NBC’s fruitless search over many years for a newsmagazine franchise. Seventeen previous attempts ended in failure.