U.S. Documentary

Although 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.

NBC 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.

A 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.


NBC 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.

These 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.

Although 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.

-Tom Mascaro


September 1972-September 1973     Tuesday 10:00-11:00


Einstein, Daniel. Special Edition: A Guide To Network Television Documentary Series And Special News Reports, 1955-1979. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1987.

Friendly, Fred. The Good Guys, the Bad Guys, and the First Amendment. New York: Random House, 1975.

Mascaro, 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.)

Yellin, David. Special: Fred Freed and the Television Documentary. New York: Macmillan, 1973.


See also Documentary