Television newsmagazine programs were a dime a dozen two decades ago, but they have seemingly become gauche — that old warhorse 60 Minutes obviously excepted — in this scary, Snooki-fueled age of reality television. But ratings-challenged NBC, a network desperate to get anything to stick following one of the most disastrous fall campaigns in its history, is aiming to change all that, having reached across the news galaxy to recruit a dazzlingly deep bench of journalistic talent — including, among others, Ted Koppel, Meredith Vieira, and my beloved Dr. Nancy Snyderman — to contribute to their newest creation, a weekly news series entitled
Rock Center with Brian Williams, which premieres Monday night (October 31) at 10pm EDT. Another prominent name popping out of the Rock Center mix is that of veteran newsman Harry Smith. A recent defector from CBS News, where he has spent the lion’s share of his journalism career, Smith is probably best known for his pair of extended stints as a co-host of CBS’ ever-struggling The Early Show. But as his celebrated stint as the host of A&E’s signature program Biography amply suggested, Smith has a reporter’s eye and a great knack for sussing out a good story, and he stopped by the Buzz for an exclusive chat about his exciting new gig.


BRANDON’S BUZZ: You know, we lived through a period several years ago when the networks were throwing these kinds of shows up right, left and center, and then we moved into the Survivor / Biggest Loser / Idol era, and the newsmagazine essentially became schedule fillers and stopgaps. So I guess my first question is: why this show, why now, and why was this project attractive to a journalist of your caliber and credential?


HARRY SMITH: The folks at NBC first approached me about this almost a year ago, when it was just a germ of an idea, and I said, ‘Well, if you’re really serious about doing this, I want to be a part of it.’ You know, NBC kind of looked at what they had going: they have the number one morning show (Today), they have the number one evening newscast (NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams), they have the number one public affairs show on Sunday mornings (Meet the Press), and they [decided] there was only one piece missing, and that’s a serious weekly newsmagazine. So they asked me to get involved, and I asked a lot of questions — you know, ‘Is it really going to be staffed? Are you really going to fund it? Are you going to be serious about it?’ This is a big-time venture, and it feels to me like this is the last time a network is going to do something like this, but [NBC] really wants to get into the serious storytelling business, and I am flattered that they asked me to come along for the ride.


I’ve heard Brian say in previous interviews that he’s out to create something like the “Cooperstown of newsmagazine shows” here, and you know, I would imagine that some might say that 60 Minutes has already done that to perfection. I know you’ve already been hard at work on Rock Center for a little while now, and I’m wondering, other than the talent at the top of the marquee, do you have a firm sense of what this show is going to offer that will set it apart in its genre?


It’ll be interesting to see how it unfolds — listen, we have a notion of what it’s gonna be like, but these things always evolve. But one of the aspects that I think is going to make the show different — and, I hope, better — is the fact that it’s live every week, and so if there’s a story that we feel is really important that comes right out of the headlines of the prior several days, [I would imagine] we’ll drill down on that and make sure it’s seen in a way it hasn’t been seen before. And beyond that, every story that we do, we’re expected to be in the studio afterwards. So this is an unscripted — Brian is adamant that there’s no script, there’s no ‘Tell me what you want me to ask you, blah blah blah.’ And, you know, we’ve rehearsed it as much as we can, just to see what it feels like, and it’s terrific. It’s really fun; it’s kind of liberating. And of course, there will be aspects of the show that — if you’ve ever seen Brian on [Late Night with Jimmy] Fallon or on Letterman, he’s kind of… he’s nuts! So there will be the little ‘Brian is nuts’ moments, as well. So, it’s gonna be different.


You touched on this, and I would think that, with all the unrest and surprises that pop up in the cornucopia that is the daily news cycle — you know, the protests and the ever-evolving political situations, both here and across the globe — I would imagine that there could never be a better time for journalists worth their salt to put their minds together and put on a hell of an interesting, entertaining, informative show. Can you tell me what kinds of stories you’re going to be sinking your collective teeth into on Rock Center?


Well, I can tell you what’s on the first night — at least what we’ve scheduled, as long as the world doesn’t change in the next day or so: we spent a good deal of time in a place called Williston, North Dakota, [which is in] an area where there are about twenty-four billion barrels of oil sitting in the ground. And what’s happening there is, it’s sort of like — think of Midland, Texas in the 1950s. There’s a boom going on there, the likes of which Americans have not seen, and there are thousands of jobs there just waiting to be filled. If you can drive a truck, you can make $80,000 a year.




[Laughs] Yeah! If you can’t do anything, if you can stand up and breathe behind a counter, you can make fifteen bucks an hour at Taco John’s. This is utopia.


This is incr — you know, I haven’t heard about any of this!


Yeah, well…. [Laughs]


I guess that’s the whole point of the show!


[Still laughing] That’s… I’m glad to hear that, because it’s — you know, the story has been out in little dribs and drabs, but we hadn’t really seen it done in full any place, so I said, ‘Let’s go!’ And we spent days there, and every minute that we were there, [we found] another jaw-dropping aspect of the story that, for most of the rest of America, they’ll just say, ‘It seems too good to be true.’


You mention Brian — you know, I’ve always thought that he was an ace, but I don’t think he ever gets the full credit he deserves for being as good as he is, because it seems as though — to me, it seems as though he was genetically engineered to do exactly what he does. He’s got the look, he’s got the voice, he’s got the mind, he’s got the demeanor, he’s got the hair




— I think if you were going to sit down and construct a network news anchor from scratch, he is exactly what you’d come up with. And he takes his work very seriously, obviously, but we also know from his appearances on Letterman and Saturday Night Live and other shows that he also has a wicked sense of humor. What can you tell me about working with him?


He’s… you know, it was interesting, because in the process of coming over to NBC, there were several critical calls that came my way, and one of them was from Brian. And he said, ‘We are really serious about doing this,’ and he made a personal plea to me to come and work on the show. And I agree [with you] — the guy deserves a lot of respect: he’s a relentless workaholic, he is as smart as they come, he does his homework, and I…. [laughs] He is, he’s kind of — if you were gonna try to create… if you were an alchemist, because it’s not an exact science — if you were an alchemist, [Brian] is what you would come up with if you were gonna [create] a guy to anchor an evening news show.


It’s clear that NBC has quite a lot riding on this project, and I suspect I already know the answer to this — and I’m sure that you don’t feel as much pressure as Brian must, given that his name is actually on the show — but I wonder how much pressure you may feel personally in terms of making sure that Rock Center lives up to all the advance hype?


You know, what’s interesting about it is — we’ve hired seventy people to work on this show. It takes at least that many people to put on a magazine show. A lot of the people are from CBS, some of them are from ABC, some are from PBS, some are newspaper folks. They come from all walks of journalism. Some of them are kids, but a lot of us are folks who have been around the block once or twice, and I think what we are most worried about is doing the best job we can, [as opposed to] ‘Well, what if that doesn’t go exactly right,’ or ‘I wonder what the critics are gonna say.’ The tone around the building is, ‘Let’s do the best job we can, and let the chips fall where they may.’


I know time is running short here, but I have to ask you about the show that very much helped you make your name in your business — rumors are flying that CBS is once again itching to make major changes to their morning show, which hasn’t been able to catch a break for decades now. I’ll tell you that I grew up watching you and Kathleen Sullivan — and later you and Paula Zahn — on that show, and I always thought you were terrific teams, and it has always seemed odd to me that, even though CBS has been at least competitive in almost every other daypart for the last decade or better, they have struggled mightily in the morning, no matter how much money and talent they have thrown at the problem trying to solve it. This is probably a stupid question, but as a veteran of that particular grind, can you get any kind of bead on why CBS has had such a struggle to gain any traction with their morning show?


I hear ya, but you know, it’s interesting, because we had — there were times during those years that I was on… we had a fairly considerable audience. We were always in third place, but we had millions and millions of viewers, and the show made money. But that’s not how [the press] reports it; in any of the trades, it’s always, ‘Third place, third place.’ I think part of it also is: The Today Show is a juggernaut. It’s one of the handful of best brands in all of television, and NBC does an ingenious job producing that show, day in and day out. And they may just be too good to beat.


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