‘Dateline’ in Syndication Takes Advantage of True-Crime Wave

It’s become a truism in television: True crime does pay.

Investigation Discovery proved that by coming on the scene with a lineup of true-crime reality series, and quickly growing to become the second-most-watched cable network among women 25-54. Netflix reaped those rewards when it aired Making a Murderer, a documentary about convicted murderer Steven Avery that was the pop-culture phenomenon of Christmas 2015. And true-crime podcasts — such as Serial and its spinoff, S—Town — sit at the top of the podcast charts for weeks.

But NBC’s Dateline has been covering true crime in primetime for years.

“We saw the true-crime space heating up, and we thought of Dateline,” said Sean O’Boyle, NBCUniversal TV Distribution executive vice president, distribution sales. “Each episode is like a real-life Law & Order, and each episode is addictive because of the great storytelling Dateline has done over the years.”

O’Boyle teamed with Peacock Productions, a division of NBC News, to turn the idea into reality. Peacock repackaged the show into 15 episodes, which were then tested last summer with Fox Television Stations, Tegna and other stations in some 20 markets. NBCU thought the test showed promise, so after it concluded, the distributor pitched stations on the idea of airing Dateline as a Monday-through-Friday strip.

Fox, Cox Media Group, Graham Media, Meredith, Nexstar Media Group, E.W. Scripps, Sinclair Broadcast Group, Sunbeam Television, Tribune Media and more took NBCU up on the offer. Some stations are running Dateline as a two-hour block, and the program airs in weekend syndication in many markets. Fox-owned MyNet is airing its own version of the show in a two-hour primetime block on Wednesday nights.

Dateline premiered in syndication on Monday, Sept. 25, and in its opening week averaged a 1.2 live-plus-same-day household rating, per Nielsen Media Research. In its weekend run, it averaged a 2.2.

On MyNet on Wednesday nights from 8 p.m.-10 p.m. ET/PT, Dateline is averaging a 0.7 in households, up 75% from what Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD was doing in the time slot last October. Dateline also is improving those time periods on MyNet among adults 18-49 and women 25-54 by 100% and 50%, respectively.

New Packaging Planned

To differentiate Dateline in syndication from the primetime version, Peacock Productions repackages each episode with new wraps provided by NBC News personalities Craig Melvin and Natalie Morales.

“It’s great to have so much talent at NBC that we can put forward in the market,” said Andy Cashman, executive producer of Dateline in syndication through Peacock Productions. “We feel like Craig and Natalie are the perfect fit for the syndication audience. They are relatable, they have worked for NBC News for a long time and they understand the Dateline brand of storytelling.”

Each episode is composed of one story, told throughout the hourlong episode. Cashman and his team at Peacock are drawing from Dateline dating back to 2010, but the network version just entered its 26th season and is the longest-running primetime series on NBC.

“For audiences, I think it’s about the mystery and the puzzle-solving,” said Cashman. “Most Datelines have a beginning, middle and end. Dateline tackles investigative, unsolved mysteries, true-crime stories, breaking news and in-depth investigations.”

Speaking of phenomena like Making a Murderer, Dateline covered the story of Steven Avery in 2005 and then updated the story in 2016, after Netflix released the documentary. A repackaged version of that episode is included in the syndicated run.

“We’ve been covering these stories — mysteries that happen in small towns — for a very long time,” Cashman said. “There’s a rich archive to tap into.”

To make the show more syndication-friendly, the NBC branding is stripped out so that the show will work on any station affiliated with any network. The MyNet version is specifically branded to MyNet, which gets two unique episodes to air each week.

Dateline is sold in syndication on an all-barter basis, with stations getting nine minutes of barter advertising in every episode and NBC getting six minutes. On MyNet, that split is 50-50. Besides the primetime run on MyNet, stations are running the show across the schedule, with runs in daytime, early fringe, prime and late night, said O’Boyle.

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for more than 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for The Global Entertainment Marketing Academy of Arts & Sciences (G.E.M.A.). She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997 - September 2002.