Solid as a Rock: Promising start for Brian Williams' Rock Center on NBC
Even Daily Show host Jon Stewart, typically unflappable and acerbic, had a hard time figuring why he was there.
"I don't know why you want to end on this note," Stewart joked to NBC anchor Brian Williams during a live interview Monday closing the first edition of Williams' newsmagazine Rock Center. Earlier, he'd joked about the inaugural show being a great unaired test program, held on a set which looked conceived by celebrity designer Nate Berkus.
That energy -- witty, freewheeling but a little uncertain and lacking in direction -- seemed to sum up the impact of Rock Center, a program determined to reinvent the newsmagazine, even if it's not quite sure yet how that will be accomplished.
The stories themselves were solid and occasionally remarkable. Middle East correspondent Richard Engel proved once again why he is NBC's most underutilized gem, sneaking into a Syria closed to press, watching civilian protesters use encryption software given them by the U.S. State Department to post videos of the military brutally responding to demonstrations.
A fluent Arabic speaker, Engel was shown speaking directly with the protesters, sleeping in safe houses for days while helpers smuggled him and his cameraman into the country. If captured, he might have been accused of being a U.S. spy; instead he came back with an illuminating insight which might have been lost if aired in the 24-hour morass of cable news on MSNBC.
(HINT, HINT -- time for a Rock Center episode devoted entirely to Engel's travels).
"The two of us together make one half of Richard Engel," Stewart said, admiringly. "I have more security when I go to EPCOT."
Elsewhere, Rock Center delivered stories you might call "talkers," interesting conversation starters with a hard news center. Kate Snow revealed a glimpse at the world of "Birth tourism," in which wealthy Chinese women take advantage of U.S. immigration rules to have their babies in America. The children are automatically born U.S. citizens, with better access to green cards for their family and college or jobs stateside.
But they also must give up Chinese citizenship, allowing the family to sidestep the country's one-child rule. It was tough to know from Snow's report how many families are doing this, what impact it has on China, how it affects America or how it affects the children. Is this a luxury enjoyed by a relatively small amount of Chinese, or an industry big enough to affect both countries?
Perhaps we'll learn that in another report.
Harry Smith visited Williston, N.D., a town where a booming oil drilling business has created a wealth of jobs for anyone who can get to the area and is willing to deal with the lack of housing space. According to Smith's report, truck drivers make $80,000 annually and one company has 500 such jobs available right now.
It's a great counterpoint to the job malaise gripping the rest of the country, though you wonder what will happen to this boom town when the oil runs out.
Through it all, Williams proved an affable, professional host, still working out when to switch his smoothly professional news guy persona with the wisecracking amateur standup comic we see on The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live. Here's hoping future episodes give him even more room to snark; we also haven't yet seen the biggest star snagged for the channel, ex-Nightline host Ted Koppel, rumored to be working on a piece about Iraq.
NBC has been vocal about telling the world -- okay, us snarky critics -- that they don't care about Rock Center's ratings.
Still, I wouldn't be surprised if viewership bumped a bit Monday for a work very much in progress but headed in the right direction.