'Rock Center with Brian Williams' premiere review: 'Birth tourism' and man-camps: Jon Stewart gives his blessing and some beer

Brian Williams has carved out a unique position in network news. He’s the anchor for NBC’s nightly news at a time when the early-evening national newscast has never meant less to a public used to 24-hour cable news and instant internet updates. So Williams has raised his profile by pursuing his instincts, which are those of a wiseguy. He’s been very funny on talk shows, displaying a wry, self-deprecating humor that doesn’t undercut his authority when he has to report breaking news or grave stories. Which also makes him one of the few news broadcasters who can make the most out of the showcase he’s been given: the cutesily named but engagingly interesting Rock Center with Brian Williams.

The premiere on Monday night was blessed by the presence of no less than the Tony Soprano of TV media ventures, Jon Stewart, who brought beer (two cans shy of a six-pack). Following a report by correspondent Richard Engel in Syria, Stewart commented on Engel’s gutsiness, saying that together, he and Williams “make up half of Richard Engel.” Williams uttered his only squirm-inducing yuk of the night: “You were getting your man-crush on.” That was the only time the shade of John Chancellor passed across the NBC studio.

Before Stewart’s live-in-studio segments, Harry Smith presented an eye-opener about Williston, N.D., where an oil boom has led to an abundance of employment — thousands of jobs. So many, that there isn’t enough housing for the influx of workers, some of whom, we were told, form “man-camps” to live in during off-hours.

Kate Snow offered a report on “birth tourism,” in this case, Chinese women who come to this country to give birth so that their babies automatically become American citizens. Touring a well-appointed house in California that housed days-old babies while their mothers were off shopping for things like iPads to bring back to China along with a bundle of joy, Snow seemed non-plussed by this business; I didn’t think those babies looked all that well-taken care of in that house.

In general, Rock Center was lively without being crass, disappointing in that it didn’t engage much in the news of the day. It could also use a voice other than Williams’ — what about some good old fashioned op-ed commentary or cultural criticism? Let’s hope Williams makes good on his promise to bring the full force of NBC News to his show, and books, say, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on his broadcast to offer a report or a position paper. (She’s worked well with reporter Engel in the recent past.)

NBC must know that Rock Center has no hope of beating ABC’s Castle, but could it make inroads into the older demo that watches CBS’ Hawaii Five-O? Not with The Sing-Off as a lead-in, I’d wager. But Williams is benefiting from how dreadfully NBC is doing in prime time. All he has to do is post numbers that equal or exceed his time period’s previous occupant — The Playboy Club — and he’ll be a hero, a cool new host. In fact, squint and you can picture Williams in a smoking jacket and pipe: a young Hugh Hefner. Suggested new title? Rock After Dark with Brian Williams.

Did you watch Rock Center?

Twitter: @kentucker

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