'Dateline,' TV's True-Crime War Horse, Starts Its 25th Season

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'Dateline' has examined the Steven Avery case both before and since the Netflix series 'Making a Murderer.'
'Dateline' has examined the Steven Avery case both before and since the Netflix series 'Making a Murderer.' Credit: Courtesy NBC
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Decades before "Serial" and "Making a Murderer" made true crime a phenomenon in new media, and before "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story" won more Emmys than "Game of Thrones," "Dateline" was telling the stories of little-known crimes taking place in small towns in Kansas or rural Ohio week in and week out.

The NBC series began its 25th season on Friday, joining a vanishingly small group of TV series to last so long. Other members of the club include "60 Minutes," "The Simpsons," "Survivor" and not many more. But "Dateline" also starts its latest run in a unique position, both buoyed and crowded by the surging interest in true crime. Newcomers are generating greater buzz on stories similar or identical to those that "Dateline" regularly covers by elevating them to the stature of critically acclaimed dramas. Then there are the downdrafts on traditional TV generated as viewers migrate to rivals like Netflix, drawn by programming such as "Making a Murderer."

"'Dateline' doesn't get the credit, but if you went back and looked at the audience for when it started doing true crime, it was likely a way bigger audience than what any of these others have done," said Robert Thompson, TV and pop culture professor at Syracuse University.

If you give "Dateline" its proper due, you notice that it was one of the first to throw a spotlight on the Steven Avery case at the heart of "Making a Murderer." It also extensively covered the O.J. Simpson trial that has recently recaptured the nation.

The show "preceded, and you can argue was an instigator of, the true crime conversation," said "Dateline" senior executive producer David Corvo.

Now "Dateline" is looking to keep up with the burgeoning competition by experimenting with a six- or eight-part series of its own delving into one long-running case. It's also giving its own takes on stories that have become part of the cultural zeitgeist. A one-hour special on the Steven Avery case including a rare 2005 interview with Penny Beerntsen, the victim in the sexual assault case for which Mr. Avery was wrongfully convicted, was watched by 5 million viewers on the night it aired in January and 2.1 million in the key 25-to-54 demographic. It added another 1.2 million viewers in DVR and on-demand viewing in the three days after it premiered.

A two-hour special on the O.J. Simpson case featuring an interview with lead prosecutor Marcia Clark averaged 6 million total viewers and 2.4 million in the 25-to-54 demo.

Its take on the JonBenét Ramsey murder, another story that has been thrown back into the spotlight in recent weeks, was watched by 6.5 million people earlier in the month.

And the show will be doing 15 consecutive two-hour specials to commemorate its anniversary.

But even as Mr. Corvo watches others find success in a genre that "Dateline" helped build, he said he doesn't feel the need to drastically alter a strategy that has accumulated a loyal audience over the show's life.

In its heyday, "Dateline" often ranked within the 10 most-watched TV programs of the week. Today it isn't a hit in the traditional sense, but pulls an impressive audience for what's typically considered a dead zone for TV, averaging about 4.8 million viewers on any given Friday in its latest season and 1.7 million 25-to-54-year-olds. (The show also airs a Sunday edition that does not regularly cover true crime.)

It has a stable roster of advertisers such as Procter & Gamble, Pfizer and Chrysler. While it surely isn't on any marketer's must-buy list, it is an efficient TV play that delivers consistent, loyal audiences."Dateline" also boasts celebrity fans like Taylor Swift, who admitted in a 2016 Vogue article that "Dateline" is her favorite show. Kim Kardashian told Harper's Bazaar in 2015 that she loves watching "Dateline," and Demi Lovato discussed her obsession with the show during an interview with Jimmy Fallon.

"It is important for us to not lose our way," Mr. Corvo said. "The stories in little towns about people who are not famous and crimes that are not widely known that touch upon faith, family, betrayal—we don't want to lose sight of those."

While some of those may end up becoming the Steven Avery stories down the road, for "Dateline" the focus is on "maintaining a relentless hum," Mr. Corvo said. "It is a marathon, not a sprint, and once in a while you need to pick up the pace to catch up."

Unsolved mysteries
"It is a very different business to be on the air two times a week and produce 100 hours of programming," he added. "These other programs, it's a few hours of content and they have tremendous time to do them and a ton of marketing."

Even as the true crime space becomes increasingly crowded, there are no plans to pivot away from unsolved cases, wrongful convictions and surprising culprits. But Mr. Corvo said the show's creators are always looking at opportunities to take the franchise in new directions. Last year, "Dateline" aired "On Assignment," a limited series anchored by Lester Holt and featuring pieces from NBC News.

"Dateline" has come a long way from its first season, when former producers and NBC News executives came under fire for staging a car explosion for a segment on the dangers of a General Motors truck.

But "Dateline" not only survived, it thrived. At its peak, the show aired five nights per week. Stars including Katie Couric, Bryant Gumbel and Ann Curry passed through its doors.

'Dateline' anchors Dennis Murphy, Andrea Canning, Lester Holt, Keith Morrison and Josh Mankiewicz.
'Dateline' anchors Dennis Murphy, Andrea Canning, Lester Holt, Keith Morrison and Josh Mankiewicz. Credit: Courtesy NBC

In those early days, "Dateline" aired some segments on unsolved cases and other mysteries, but the focus was on breaking news and deep dives on current events.

"I did a ton of animal stories," recalled correspondent Keith Morrison, who has been with the program since its birth aside from a short stint as a morning news anchor in his native Canada. "There were three different episodes on Keiko, the whale in 'Free Willy.'"

But when the show aired an episode centered on a wrongful conviction or grisly murder, "people stood up and paid attention," Mr. Morrison said. The highest-rated episode ever was a 1998 murder-mystery titled "Cliffhanger," about a woman falling from a cliff.

"Dateline" partnered with Court TV in the late '90s to document courtroom dramas that became popular after the O.J. Simpson trial. "But we became more interested in the stories that happened outside of the courtroom," Mr. Corvo said.

In the mid-2000s, it generated deafening buzz with a new kind of crime programming: "To Catch a Predator," a hidden-camera show where host Chris Hansen presided over stings targeting pedophiles. The sub-franchise concluded in 2007 amid criticism of its tactics.

In fall of 2006, Mr. Corvo said they realized that the show needed to be more predictable, and that's when the team started to regularly air hourlong crime stories on Friday nights.

It's hard to believe that Mr. Morrison, whose ominous narration has become synonymous with the show, "had to be dragged into" reporting on unsolved cases and other mysteries.

"I didn't think it was appropriate, in some way, to ask people very personal questions about these terrible things that happened and then tell that story on TV," Mr. Morrison said over the phone from a farm in North Dakota, where he was filming an episode for the 25th season.

But Mr. Morrison said "Dateline" isn't about exploiting the horrors of other people's lives. He is proud of the work the show has done in exposing weaknesses in the criminal justice system. "Dateline" has helped set free at least five inmates who were wrongfully convicted.

Staffers mention a show mantra from correspondent Dennis Murphy: "It's not about the murder, it's about the marriage."

"It's not about the crime," Mr. Corvo explained, "but everything in the person's background and the story that led to the crime."

Mr. Corvo admits that it has become more challenging to find great stories in an era when there's significantly more competition.

As much as the strategy for the Friday-night edition has remained consistent, Mr. Corvo said "Dateline" is working to extend the brand both on linear TV and digital and social platforms. Digital offshoots include "Missing in America" and "Cold Case Spotlight," which highlights reports of missing people or cold cases that viewers submit.

"Dateline" is also building out its social presence, with Mr. Morrison and other correspondents and producers engaging with its over 400,000 Twitter followers during and after episodes.

But ultimately the point of pride is telling a strong narrative that gets to the heart of the human condition, said Mr. Corvo.

"I could make these stories last a whole season," Mr. Morrison said. "We are not there yet, but maybe one day."

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