This year marks the 30th season of Dateline NBC. To celebrate, here’s what you need to know about the show’s early days, how “To Catch a Predator” came to be, why the show pivoted to true crime, and what Keith Morrison really thinks of Bill Hader’s impression of him.
1. NBC had 17 failed newsmagazines before Dateline.
By the 1990s, newsmagazines had become all the rage: Viewers tuned in in droves for the real-life stories they told, and networks loved them because they cost half as much to produce as scripted shows (roughly $500,000 versus $1 million an episode). CBS had 60 Minutes and 48 Hours, and ABC had Primetime Live, but NBC had trouble creating a successful newsmagazine. Over the course of 24 years, the network launched: First Tuesday; Chronolog; First Tuesday (for a second time); NBC Presents a Special Edition; Weekend; Prime Time Sunday; Prime Time Saturday; NBC Magazine with David Brinkley; NBC Magazine; Monitor; First Camera; Summer Sunday, USA; American Almanac; 1986; Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow; Real Life with Jane Pauley; and Exposé. The 18th time would be the charm: Dateline launched in March 1992.
2. Dateline was a combination of two of those failed shows.
When creating their new newsmagazine, NBC looked back at two of its failed half-hour shows, which had both lasted just one season apiece: Real Life with Jane Pauley, which focused on human interest stories, and Tom Brokaw’s Exposé, which was all about hard-hitting investigative journalism. The network took those two approaches and threw them together, hiring Pauley and Stone Phillips to co-anchor. Unlike its other newsmagazines, NBC committed to Dateline for at least one year before an episode had even aired.
3. Initially, Dateline’s format was heavily borrowed from 60 Minutes …
As Mother Jones wrote of newsmagazines in general in 1993, “The correspondents, the graphics, the music, and the length of segments may differ from program to program, but the formats are remarkably similar, usually slight variations on either 60 Minutes, with its three-story-per-hour structure, or 48 Hours, with its single-theme structure.” The Baltimore Sun said Dateline was “shamelessly imitating CBS’ 60 Minutes in its use of news stories structured along the lines of basic entertainment formulas.” The first episode—called “impressive, if familiar” by the Orlando Sentinel and “formulaic but also solid” by the Chicago Tribune—combined investigative pieces with feel-good stories. The opening segment looked into cases of people dying from being given the wrong medications; there was also a profile of two adults with Down syndrome. The show ended with a report on Michael Jordan’s gambling.
4. … But there were some key differences.
Executive producer Neal Shapiro noted that there were some differences that made Dateline stand out. In 1996, he told the Chicago Tribune that Dateline is “exactly like Time and US News and Newsweek. You may get some little stories, or you may get one big takeout on an important story. And there'll be some things at the end of the magazine that make you laugh or chuckle or something. It's nice to acknowledge that our lives are more than just big important stories about corruption in Washington. Sometimes it's just about what's the hot book, what's the dopey trend in movies, what's the cool special effect that everybody's talking about. And I think we've done that better than anybody."
Two years later, Shapiro told the Los Angeles Times, “We do a whole thing entitled ‘Family Focus,’ where we do things about how to raise kids, how to discipline kids, how to make kids eat. 60 Minutes doesn't do those. We do consumer reporting. So does 20/20. That's not what 60 Minutes likes to do. … I think our view of news is not just what you would see on the front page, it is what you would see in all parts of the paper. ... I think our definition of what is news is just broader.”
5. Don Hewitt, the producer of 60 Minutes, was not a fan of Dateline.
“We deal with much more serious journalism,” 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt told the Chicago Tribune in 1996. “I have no interest in Kato Kaelin, Joey Buttafuoco, or Donna Rice. I want to upgrade the market, not downgrade it.” Two years later, he said in an interview with The New York Times that Dateline made him think of "the Dole pineapple family that went to Hawaii as missionaries; they went to do good, and they did well; Dateline is doing very well for itself.”
6. Dateline started airing one night a week, but quickly expanded.
When it began, Dateline aired only on Tuesdays, but by the summer of 1994, NBC had added a second night (Thursdays, which became Fridays in the fall). In September of that year, Dateline replaced NBC’s other newsmagazine, Now, on Wednesday nights, for a total of three nights per week. Two years later, Dateline added a Sunday night episode. By the fall of 1998, Dateline was on five nights a week—a schedule it kept for two years, until May 2000, when it scaled back to three nights a week. These days, you can catch it on NBC on Fridays at 9 p.m. as well as in syndication on networks like Oxygen and Investigation Discovery—or on streaming whenever you want.
7. The biggest names in news have appeared on Dateline.
Dateline's first anchors were Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips; Pauley left in 2003, and Ann Curry joined Phillips as co-anchor in 2005. Phillips left in 2007, and Curry was anchor until 2011, at which point Lester Holt—who had joined the show as a reporter in 2005—became the host.
The show has also had a number of high-profile correspondents: Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric made the occasional appearance after Dateline took over the slot of their show, Now, and Maria Shriver and Hoda Kotb have also appeared on Dateline.
8. Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator” segments were very popular.
It was one of Dateline’s most memorable segments: Behind-the-scenes footage showed adult members of an organization called Perverted Justice going into online chat rooms, where they posed as underage kids. If an adult in the chatroom started being inappropriate, the "kid" would save the chats and, eventually, set up an in-person meeting; when the adult showed up at the house where they were to meet, the “minor” went upstairs to change. Then, Dateline correspondent Chris Hansen appeared with a camera crew and asked them to take a seat. When the men left, the police were usually waiting.
There are two stories for how Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator” segments came to be: Hansen wrote in his book To Catch a Predator: Protecting Your Kids from Online Enemies Already in Your Home that he came up with the idea after hearing about Perverted Justice’s work from a reporter friend in Detroit. According to Dateline producer Allan Maraynes, however, the idea for the segment came from a story on a Philadelphia news station that performed a sting with Perverted Justice. Whoever came up with it, Dateline added its own twist: “I thought, ‘What if we created the illusion that there was a child inside the house and our reporter was waiting inside?’” Maraynes told The Washington Post. “I thought it would be more interesting if we created a waiting room and could see who these people were. I said, ‘Let's see what happens.’” The first segment premiered in 2004.
Setting up "To Catch a Predator" involved renting a house for as long as two weeks, setting up cameras and microphones, and paying for the travel and lodgings of Perverted Justice’s volunteers. It was pricey, but the investment paid off: At the peak of their popularity in 2006, the segments were watched by more than 10 million people, according to TIME. But they weren’t without controversy: Dateline came under fire for crossing journalistic lines by working closely with police and with Perverted Justice, which the show began to pay a consulting fee after the popularity of the first segments.
9. Chris Hansen almost missed filming the first “To Catch a Predator” segment.
The first “To Catch a Predator” segment was filmed in Bethpage, Long Island, in February 2004—and Hansen nearly missed it. Initially, his biggest worry was that no one would show, and he would have spent a ton of money for nothing. But then he was en route to the location, and stuck in traffic, when he got a call that the target was on his way. “My producer, Lynn Keller, was frantic," Hansen wrote in To Catch a Predator: Protecting Your Kids from Online Enemies Already in Your Home. "If the predators got there before I did, it could sabotage the whole operation.” According to the Columbia Journalism Review, Hansen beat him with just 15 minutes to spare; by Hansen’s account, he arrived around 45 minutes before the target. Dateline was at the house for 2.5 days, during which time 18 men showed up.
10. Dateline’s focus on true crime began in the early aughts.
Dateline’s true crime segments seemed to connect with viewers in a powerful way, so in 2005, the show pivoted to two-hour murder mysteries. “It’s got good guys, bad guys, conflict over something that matters, suspense and then resolution—the classic elements of drama and great storytelling,” former Dateline producer David Corvo told The New York Times in 2011.
He credited correspondent Dennis Murphy with the show’s true crime slogan: “It’s not about the murder, it’s about the marriage.” As correspondent Josh Mankiewicz told The Harold and Maudecast, "We could find bloodier crimes. We could find more famous crimes. We're not as interested in that. Dateline is about the choices people make when relationships don't work out."
Producers believe true crime fascinates viewers because they want to know what makes seemingly normal people do terrible things. Correspondent Keith Morrison thinks there's something else to the show's appeal, though: "The one thing that you know when you're watching a true crime story is that you're able to see those sort of outline behaviors people get involved in and you're able to see, hopefully, how the wrongs are righted or how the bad people get caught and put away," he said in April 2021. "The notion of justice, injustice corrected by something that creates a balance of justice, seems to be so central to the human experience and especially so in a time as complex and uncertain as the one we're in."
11. Dateline producers find the stories, but correspondents add their flair.
As Morrison told the Los Angeles Times in 2016, it’s usually the producers who track down the stories featured on Dateline, and the team and the correspondents prepare for interviews together. “We collaborate on what we're going to do and how we're going to do it, and I've always got lots of material I can use before I head into one of these things,” Morrison told USA Today.
The producers typically write the initial draft of the scripts, too, and before the show is taped, the correspondents will dig in and do rewrites when necessary. “[Morrison] has a way of taking a story and diving into all the layers and nuances of it and organizing it into a compelling narrative,” producer Robert Dean, who called Morrison a “master storyteller,” said. And, of course, the delivery that has made him so memorable is all Morrison.
12. Dateline correspondent Keith Morrison wasn’t interested in doing true crime.
It seems hard to believe now, given that Morrison is, as GQ put it, “the grandaddy of true crime,” but initially, “I sort of had to be dragged into the murder business," he told the Los Angeles Times. "It just didn’t seem right somehow. We were taking these intensely affecting, deeply personal incidents in people’s lives and making entertainment from them.” But Morrison, who has worked as a correspondent for Dateline since 1995, recognized that true crime wasn’t going anywhere. Now he believes that the show helps expose the shortcomings of the justice system in the U.S., which he called "flawed everywhere" in a 2013 interview with The Daily Mail: "We have a number of cases where you get to know an individual who you know for a fact—or as close to a fact as you can get—has been falsely convicted," he said. "They’re sent off to prison and prison terms in the U.S. are very long, so they’re maybe sent away for life or up to 50 years—you know they’re innocent, but the process of trying to undo a mistake once made is so difficult. The decision of a jury is cast in concrete and it takes decades to chip away at it."
Morrison, who covers more crime as part of Investigation Discovery's Keith Morrison Investigates, is also helping the families of victims tell their stories. But even so, he told GQ that he always has a moment of doubt when he sits down for an interview: “This is … the most painful thing that could ever happen to them. They're happy to sit down and talk with us, even though they know we're going to put it on television and people will look at it as entertainment. It gives you a few moments of, Should we really be doing this? You realize that nobody comes on our show unless they want to, and it can be cathartic for people, so, fine. But you still have that moment.”
13. Keith Morrison is flattered by Bill Hader’s impression of him.
Morrison’s delivery on Dateline is so iconic that it got the parody treatment from Bill Hader on Saturday Night Live. The correspondent was a fan: “It was completely embarrassing and funny and sweet,” he said in an interview with the New York Post in 2013. “It is nice to be made fun of in a way. It is just strange. I should probably thank [Hader] for giving me some kind of notoriety that I wouldn’t otherwise have.”
In 2019, Morrison and Hader got to meet for the first time. "It was like the Beatles," Hader later told Seth Meyers. "I was like, 'Aaaaaaahhhh.' … [He's] one of my personal heroes."
14. There are now Dateline podcasts.
If you can't get enough Dateline, you're in luck: You can also listen to the show in podcast form. Among the offerings are a "showcast" of classic episodes as well new podcasts like Killer Role, The Thing About Pam, Mommy Doomsday, and 13 Alibis.