not as renowned as ABC CloseUp, CBS Reports, or NBC White
Paper, NBC Reports offered in-depth investigations in
the prestige documentary tradition for nearly two decades and is
extensively woven into the history of documentaries and newsmagazines
on American network television. Introduced in 1972 as a regularly
scheduled series, this collection of investigative reports was designed
to probe and expose issues of the day. The series is notable as
much for its personnel as for its occasionally controversial content.
NBC Reports was also instrumental in the shift by network
news divisions from a long-form documentary commitment to "infotainment"
news hours, and eventually the stream of stylish network newsmagazines
that proliferated in the 1990s.
Reports initially shared a time slot with the newsmagazine First
Tuesday and an acclaimed historical documentary series America,
which was produced by the BBC and Time-Life Films. (America
moved to PBS for the 1974-75 season.) This scheduling technique
became common after 1968 when the networks began experimenting with
newsmagazines. News divisions wanted a program format that expanded
coverage of the day's headlines but did not warrant the in-depth
analysis of a documentary. The newsmagazines were intended to complement
the documentary and the evening newscasts. Network executives were
also searching for ways to fill programming hours and looked to
their news divisions as a source. One solution was to allocate a
time slot to the news division, which they filled with a combination
of newsmagazine and documentary programs, such as NBC Reports.
The series arrived after an era of protest against the media that
accompanied network television's coverage of the 1968 Democratic
National Convention in Chicago and the anti-media sentiment that
emanated from the administration of President Nixon. In this hostile
climate, the very first documentary offered by NBC Reports provoked
strong reactions. Pensions: The Broken Promise, which aired
12 September 1972, exposed inadequacies in national pension funds
that resulted in severe losses for veteran workers. The report won
a Peabody Award and praise from the American Bar Association. But
it was also investigated by the Nixon administration Federal Communications
Commission, in response to a complaint by the conservative media
watchdog group Accuracy in Media that the report was one-sided and
thus violated the Fairness Doctrine. The Supreme Court refused to
hear the case and in 1976 let stand a lower court ruling in favor
of NBC that the program had achieved reasonable balance.
number of distinguished producers worked on NBC Reports,
among them, Pam Hill, who did her final work on the series before
moving to ABC to produce ABC CloseUp; the prolific Robert (Shad)
Northshield, who went to CBS News in 1977 and developed the peerless
CBS Sunday Morning; Lucy Jarvis, who produced NBC documentaries
on international and domestic affairs, then left the network in
1976 to become an independent producer; Fred Freed, one of television's
outstanding documentarists; and Robert Rogers. Rogers, an award-winning
news writer, was a protégé of the documentarian Ted Yates, who was
killed in Jerusalem in 1967 while covering the Six-Day War. Rogers
continued to produce documentaries and newsmagazines and later became
manager of the NBC White Paper series.
Reports was later called NBC Report on America, an irregularly
scheduled documentary series that focused on life style and domestic
social issues. In 1987 the series aired two infamous documentaries
anchored by correspondent Connie Chung: Life in the Fat Lane,
a program on overeating and weight control, and Scared Sexless,
which examined American social mores after the occurrence of AIDS
and the decline of the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
programs, produced by Sid Feders, featured stylish treatments, including
computer graphics, popular music, quick pacing, and a minimum of
information. They also showcased a celebrity news anchor, in Connie
Chung, and popular entertainers, such as Alan Alda, Marcus Allen,
Nell Carter, Dom Deluise, Jane Fonda, Goldie Hawn, Tommy Lasorda,
Danny Sullivan, and Oprah Winfrey.
these programs shared characteristics with traditional documentaries--in
that they incrementally developed a thesis on a pressing social
issue--the decision to team celebrity news reporters with entertainment
idols and to evoke an aesthetic look that resembled prime-time entertainment
fare was highly successful in attracting large audiences and widespread
publicity. Other networks also experimented with this documentary
technique, but these NBC Report on America broadcasts led
the field in 1987 and demonstrated to network management that news
divisions could produce profitable programs. By the 1990s, the formula
evolved into a rush of prime-time newsmagazines that showcased glamorous
correspondents and popular topics on all the major commercial networks.
September 1972-September 1973 Tuesday 10:00-11:00
Daniel. Special Edition: A Guide To Network Television Documentary
Series And Special News Reports, 1955-1979. Metuchen, New Jersey:
Fred. The Good Guys, the Bad Guys, and the First Amendment.
New York: Random House, 1975.
Tom. "Documentaries Go Stylish." Electronic Media (Chicago),
1 February 1988.
_______________. Lowering the Voice of Reason: The Decline of
Network Television Documentaries in the Reagan Years. (Ph.D.
dissertation. Wayne State University, 1995.)
David. Special: Fred Freed and the Television Documentary.
New York: Macmillan, 1973.
See also Documentary