The programming hole left in NBC’s Monday-night schedule by the quickly canceled The Playboy Club has been filled by a different sort of club—one hosted by Brian Williams. And in some ways, Rock Center isn’t entirely antithetical to Playboy’s Penthouse, the casual talk and variety show hosted by Hugh Hefner from 1959 to 1961. Both feature charismatic and well-known male media personalities holding court in a fake living room in the sky. But where Penthouse put the emphasis on the party—having celebrities pop by to chat and perform while bunnies milled around in the background—Rock Center seems to be suffering from a bit of an identity crisis, pairing several engaging, if not riveting, long-form news segments with an uncomfortably stiff live conversation with Daily Show funnyman Jon Stewart. The results were unaffecting.
If nothing else, Rock Center is the struggling network’s acknowledgment that, with the 52-year-old Williams, it has actually done something right. As authoritative as he is likable, as austere as he is effortlessly funny and self-effacing, Williams is something of a TV rarity, sliding between genres as disparate as network news (NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams remains the top-rated network newscast), sitcoms like 30 Rock, and late-night sketch comedy on shows like Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and Saturday Night Live. But his new platform seems to be more a product of the NBC news department than anything else. So after scripted introductions, Williams disappeared, and we got several nine-minute news segments. There was a Harry Smith piece about a town in North Dakota that actually has more job openings than it can fill, due to new processes that can extract oil from rock via “fracking.” Then Richard Engel smuggled himself into Syria in broad daylight, for a scattered segment about the current state of the revolution that should have felt more exciting and essential than it actually did. And Kate Snow covered the “birth tourism” racket, in which wealthy Chinese women come to the U.S. to deliver American citizens.
The stories set it apart from NBC’s other news magazine, Dateline, which has traditionally traded in more sordid material like sensational murders and To Catch a Predator internet sex stings. By comparison, these segments seemed worthy; in fact, they seemed like extended versions of segments you’d see on Nightly News. And that’s a bit of a problem, especially coming in the same week that 60 Minutes ran its Madoff family interviews—probably some of the most riveting television ever. Granted, a scandal like the Madoff’s comes along once in a lifetime, maybe even once in history. But 60 Minutes, which has been airing on CBS since 1968 and has invented, perfected, and dominated the format ever since, is far more skilled at packaging a story in a way that makes it feel like appointment television. The close-ups. The pointed questions. The ticking stopwatch. It’s a formula, but it’s theirs, and it works.
Rock Center has no formula. It barely has an identity. Stewart pointed out as much during the interview segment, giving Williams a hard time about his probing Halloween questions and choice of hosiery. Not only did the interview clash with the rest of the show, it also highlighted the fact that Williams is many things, but an interviewer is not one of them. Despite having sat in Stewart’s chair “19 times,” as he pointed out, things are a lot different when the tables are turned.