It’s too bad about “Rock Center.”
It’s even worse that I FEEL worse about the recent cancellations of “Vegas” and “Golden Boy” than I do about the cancellation of “Rock Center.” Not only did the show migrate to five different time slots in its short, fretful history, but it never seemed, after watching the first two, to be reinventing the TV newsmagazine the way it probably needed to do to survive.
Heaven knows Brian Williams’ news magazine had some news “stars” – Ted Koppel, Meredith Vieira – but that might have been as much a problem as a solution.
In an era when actual print magazines have been beaten black and blue by the Internet (so long Newsweek, we’re sorry to see you go) TV’s version of them, I think, needed to do something very different and showy to launch a new one.
“Rock Center” did boast Bob Costas’ head-shaking interview with now-convicted Penn State pedophile Jerry Sandusky, but it was otherwise very much in the mode of what we’ve been seeing since “60 Minutes” first went on the air and turned the form into a network staple (distinguished by its relative cheapness compared with most prime-time TV).
“60 Minutes,” the Don Hewitt invention that is the grandfather of the form, is still alive and well Sunday nights. Far better is “CBS Sunday Morning,” the best and most creative network TV newsmagazine of them all, by far, and one of the few shows on television it is never advisable to miss. (If ever there was a show that cried out for the invention of the DVR, it’s “CBS Sunday Morning.”)
Otherwise, the network newsmagazines that work best for audiences seem to be the crime magazines – NBC’s “Dateline” and CBS’ “48 Hours.” Just as cable TV is in metric Nirvana when a Jodi Arias murder trial shows up or Cleveland women are liberated after many years from the sexual prison of a monster rapist, the regular networks can almost always count on audiences showing up for cheaply turned-out crime reportage.
Actual prime-time crime shows are a different matter. They cost serious dough and demand some sort of metric return. We are, at last report, still waiting to see if NBC sticks with “Hannibal,” but CBS’ “Vegas” and “Golden Boy” are reportedly goners.
The cancellation of “Vegas” was a fait accompli, it seems to me, long ago. The show was mildly enjoyable – mostly for its cast – but with the surprising death of writer/director Nora Ephron, the wife of “Vegas’” co-creator Nick Pileggi, one had to assume that the amount of time a co-creator would want to spend baby-sitting his creation, would likely be limited indeed.
“Golden Boy” is an unfortunate loss for CBS. It too was far from great; we’re not talking about a show in the “Elementary” or “The Good Wife” or even “The Mentalist” class here. But it had what turned into a nice premise about an ambitious homicide cop with a deeply dysfunctional family, a wise bear of a partner, and an in-house cop rival so used to being the departmental hot shot that he was capable of all manner of dirty undermining tactics to deprive the new star’s career of necessary oxygen. “Golden Boy” had a nice feel for the ugliness of office politics, especially those involving mediocrity threatened by indefatigable excellence.
Chi McBride, as the young ace’s wise, ursine mentor, was even more of a weekly pleasure on “Golden Boy” than he’d been on “Boston Public.” He didn’t even look as if they had to buy him new suits for his new role.
That’s why I’ll miss them far more than “Rock Center,” a TV newsmagazine that seemed to scream to be let loose to reinvent the TV newsmagazine for the Internet Age but never was.
That, I think, is where the TV newsmagazine needs to go as we close in on “60 Minutes’” half-century mark. (It was invented in 1968, a dreadfully crowded year for news on TV, almost all of it traumatic.) There is no reason why the Demo Babies of the 21st century, raised on a constant flow of information literally in the palms of their hands, should have the same needs as those raised in an ancient broadcast era which began with three channels that were then joined by two more.
What “Rock Center” could have been was an avowedly experimental news show right from the start – one where younger NBC News staff members – even those without “names” – could invent all kinds of new things to put in an hour of TV news. Lower rating expectations, expand the amount of freedom involved and move well outside the confines of those who have been taught all-too-well the dreary conventions of broadcast news in America, and they’d have had a news magazine that could have been exciting to watch.
At this stage, we didn’t need another conventional TV newsmagazine; we need an on-air TV news laboratory that some network is brave enough to launch as competition for the Internet and the 24/7 cable news channels.
That, I think, is similar to what’s necessary for the late-night talk shows now, too. Letterman’s show is so conventional on most nights that it works only because of Letterman. Leno’s show is an old reliable that even dedicated watchers are probably ashamed to watch. Jimmy Kimmel’s is middling at best, but he’s actually added something edgy to late-night gaggery – his pointed forays into “This Week in Unnecessary Censorship.”
Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” has freed them all to be more political. Letterman’s bilious “Stooge of the Night” bits currently publicly humiliate every senator who voted against gun control legislation in a use of late-night comedy no one would have expected before Stewart’s adaptation of Craig Kilborn and Lizz Winstead’s original “Daily Show.”
But late-night comedy has to be freed up. Someone’s got to play around with the desk and the couch and give us something better than the ghastly inanities of movie opening hype at its very worst.
NBC just announced that when Leno is, in fact, finally removed the way they’ve long wanted to do and Jimmy Fallon will take his place, “Saturday Night Live’s” head writer Seth Meyers will take Fallon’s place.
In other words, Lorne Michaels will, at long last, become the total late night comedy czar of NBC as he seems to have wanted since the first “oust-Leno” move was made.
That, it seems to me, is far indeed from the radical late-night comedy reinvention that we need in the Age of Information.
If someone somewhere has the guts to even start, the time to look for a new Steve Allen or Jack Paar for the 21st century is now.
A new Don Hewitt for TV news wouldn’t hurt, either.