Are we ready for kibitzing on a network news magazine?

How fitting that on the day that Dr. Conrad Murray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, the second installment of Rock Center aired  featuring yet another empty, cringe-worthy live celebrity interview by Brian Williams.

As clear as we saw that Dr. Murray could not say “no” to Michael Jackson,  it is evident the NBC news anchor lacks someone on his team willing to say what he may not want to hear: Williams must give up  the risky behavior  on his show: vapid interviews filled with what he thinks is wry humor. This week’s installment, Tina Fey.

The big news since  the April publication of  Fey’s greatly promoted autobiography:  she had a second child, Penelope Athena.  So in a two-segment interview on the show that wants to challenge 60 Minutes, we were treated to the inside information that Tina Fey has been so busy with Penelope and older sister, Alice, that she has no idea what’s going on in the world around her.

That’s something I would have rather not known and I hope Fey catches up with the politicians she so skillfully once skewered for not doing right for those that need help most.

Williams kibitzed with Fey (yes, that best describes this night’s fluff) about the similarity in their NBC show titles: 30 Rock and Rock Center.  Har, har, har.

Again, how can NBC let its premiere news anchor, who’s known for his quick wit and dry humor, be exposed as an embarrassing uncle at the grown-ups table.

Having worked alongside Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer, two of the best interviewers of our time , I can assure you  a great interview is  a work of art, not an accident.

NBC suits must know that.  Jay Leno asking Hugh Grant, “What were you thinkin’?” was a classic.  Tim Russert’s questions, so carefully crafted to prevent dodges and filibusters, were  game-changing.  Matt Lauer’s best Today Show interviews become viral.

Williams other live segment of the night was with correspondent Harry Smith on last week’s story on Williston, North Dakota.  This debrief proved the point I made in my earlier  review:  that the real story was hidden in the tag which briefly mentioned the 10,000 “man camps” that have sprung up in the new boom town to accommodate those who find jobs but not housing.

At William’s prompting, Smith tells viewers who are highly interested in Williston’s 18,000 unfilled jobs that the Mayor says “do not come unless you have a place to live.”   Smith then promised Williams he would return to Williston sometime during their brutal winter for a follow-up report (or rather the important elements he missed in the first one.)

There Is a Doctor In the House

This week’s lead story was about the shameful  mass involuntary sterilizations that occurred in North Carolina during the 60s and 70s. Dr. Nancy Snyderman’s disturbing report was driven by an unforgettable woman, Elaine Riddick, and the only child she would have, a son who was the product of a rape by a neighbor when she was just  13.

Dr. Nancy reported on  the state “medical” records which reveal the decision by social workers to sterilize the Riddick because she was “promiscuous,” “unsupervised,” and “feeble-minded” and “mentally retarded”.

It is a haunting damnation once you know Elaine Riddick, despite having an absentee father and a mother in jail, went on to get a college degree and raise her son to be a successful and contributing member of their community.  I’d like to know if he social workers who determined Riddick was “unfit to procreate” raised daughters or sons who turned out as fine and upstanding as hers.

Audiotapes of many of those social workers were made in 1997 by Professor Johanna Schoen, whose research first exposed North Carolina’s scandalous mass sterilization practices without consent of the patient.

If you go on NBC’s website, you can find Snyderman’s fascinating interview with Schoen, along with a four-minute interview with Gov. Beverly Perdue who grapples with how to compensate the few dozen victims who have come forward out of the thousands  in her state believed to still be alive.

In the 16-minute piece which aired on Rock Center, Snyderman takes a slightly aggressive, advocacy posture with Gov. Purdue. Online, however, Governor Perdue comes across far more heroic given for decades 31 states legalized eugenics, the science of controlling the human population by selective breeding/sterilization.

“I’m the only governor in America who has taken this directly taken this on hand.  I’m the only governor in America who has said, ‘This happened in our history and it’s unacceptable.’

“No amount of money can pay them back and the fact that someone would attempt to put a dollar figure on it is a challenge to me.”

Given this dark story was brought to light  nearly 15 years ago and North Carolina outlawed the practice of eugenics by 2004, the story might have made even a greater impact if we could have seen how Beverly Perdue, one of just six sitting female governors, grapples with her state’s budget and politics and her own feeling of outrage, something we get more than a glimpse of in the outtakes posted online.

The intersection of medicine and politics will rank among the most important continuing stories for the next decade. Having said that, Dr. Nancy remains more of a solution to the freshman problems of Rock Center.

Ratings continuing to be distressing for Rock Center,  Per preliminary Nielsen data, last night’s Rock Center averaged 3.51 million viewers and a 1.0 rating among adults 18-49 in the 10 p.m. time slot, making it the least-watched program of the evening on a Big Four network. The number of total viewers who watched  fell 15 percent from the last week(4.14 million viewers), although the rating in the (key adult) demo was unchanged.

Ad Week Magazine calls comparisons to the former time slot occupant “more jarring.” Rock Center is off 23% from The Playboy Club which was cancelled  with a 1.3 Neilsen rating (Sept. 26).

I suspect when the Nielsen minute-by-minute ratings are available,  the Rock Center team will be able to see the fast audience fall off during those awkward live celebrity segments.

Which brings us back to the breaking news story Rock Center ignored last night.   It might have been more enlightening for Williams to bump Tina Fey, or at least one of her two segments, and sit down with Dr. Nancy Snyderman, who was already on the set.

Being Live Means Being Nimble

Perhaps they could have discussed The Big Teachable Moment from the Conrad Murray trial: the tragic consequences when those at the pinnacle of success can replace the people with the integrity to say “no,”  with others willing to indulge every whim, regardless of the consequences.

Now that’s a conversation worth a segment or two for both the audience and the news team.

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