“Dateline NBC” executive producer Liz Cole has been working on the show in some capacity since 1993, well before Nicole Brown Simpson and JonBenet Ramsey were murdered. As the show approaches its 25th anniversary on Friday night, she understands that certain true-crime mysteries continue to resonate with viewers decades after they occur.
With the exception of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, “Dateline NBC” has devoted more minutes to the O.J. Simpson case than any other in the 25-year history of the series. The murder of JonBenet comes in second and both cases were recently revisited because of their 20-year anniversaries. In fact, “Dateline” aired a two-hour special for each case that was a culmination of all of those years of reporting and they resulted in the two highest rated “Dateline” programs in 2016.
“Each of those stories had something truly surprising about them. For O.J., it was the fact that this beloved celebrity — a super-star athlete, pitchman and sportscaster — was at the center of this brutal crime. That on its own was incredible and then on top of that, you had all of these other layers, race, domestic violence and cameras in the courtroom,” Cole told TheWrap. “With all of those elements together in the mix, it was impossible to look away from — and still is.”
Cole continued: “JonBenet was also surprising. Something terrible happened to this little girl, at her home in this lovely neighborhood and then there was this window into the then little-known world of child beauty pageants and all of the pictures and video that came with that. It also felt like a story we hadn’t seen before and it was unsolved, which keeps people intrigued to this day.”
Cole hasn’t been at “Dateline” for all 25 years, but she comes pretty close. The show debuted on March 31, 1992 when Cole was a young researcher for NBC News’ Maria Shriver unit. She landed at “Dateline” in 1993 and has held every title from segment producer all the way up to EP. She also met her husband as a result of the job — while covering the Simpson trial, as it happens.
Cole still considers that trial — and the Ramsey murder — particularly momentous in the show’s history. While she points to racially charged police shootings, Casey Anthony, and George Zimmerman, as examples of more recent cases that captivated the nation, nothing really matched the cultural saturation level of those earlier stories.
“There isn’t one all-consuming story that everybody is doing everyday but there are plenty of stories that people are really interested in,” Cole said. “For us, every Friday night people are tuning in to watch these stories.”
“Dateline NBC” is currently beating ABC’s “20/20” across the board season-to-date on Friday nights, averaging 4.7 million viewers per episode, compared to 4.5 million for “20/20.” Among the key news demographic of adults age 25-54, “Dateline” averages 1.6 million while “20/20” averages 1.5 million viewers.
The Wrap: Is there a particular story that touched you personally?
Cole: The story that, if you talk to anyone in this business, that stays with you is 9/11. I mean, that’s probably not the kind of story you were thinking about but it was obviously a horrific story, it was in our backyard. I had a personal connection, too, because my husband was down there working, for “Dateline” actually, and he was within three blocks of the first tower when it went down. I didn’t know if he was OK for hours.
Do any of the “Dateline” mysteries stay with you more than others?
There is one that Keith Morrison did a few years ago, I think we called the story “Deadly Connection.” It was one of our two-hour stories and it was about a guy who had killed, I believe it was two young women, and there was one woman who escaped. I think he set her on fire, and she jumped out a window… it has been a while so I don’t remember the specifics but towards the end of that story, Keith did an interview with her. Her name was Lydia and she had this incredible spirit, she wasn’t bitter at all. I remember she gave Keith this bracelet that spells out her name and stands for “Live Your Days Inspired Anew.” He might even still wear it to this day because she had such an impact on everyone who met her in the field and all of us when we watched the story.
Why was Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” so successful?
I think it’s for the same reason that our two-hour stories do so well. Telling these stories in a hyper long form format gives the viewer an opportunity to see the nuances of the story — to live in the details and clues and mystery a bit more. And also, to get to know the people involved. On some level I think people watch these stories to understand what drives ordinary people to act in these extraordinary and sometimes terrible ways.
Are we going to see “Dateline” on a streaming service anytime soon?
I don’t know. It’s something that we’ve certainly talked about. We’re not on Netflix right now but we’re on so many other places. You can find “Dateline” on MSNBC, ID, NBC.com, so I don’t think it is hard for people who want to find “Dateline” to find it. Could we wind up on Netflix in the future? Maybe, but there is no immediate plan for that.
What part of your job makes you the proudest?
Whenever the bell rings and its breaking news and the team comes together in this incredible way under very tight deadlines and stressful situations, we put an hour of television on. Whether it’s on the Paris attacks, Newton or Hurricane Sandy even. Just seeing the whole team come together… it’s really fantastic. We have the best senior team in the business and of course [senior executive producer] David Corvo, who’s been our leader for a long time now.
The 25th anniversary episode of “Dateline NBC” airs on Friday night at 9 p.m. ET.