Since 2009, WNBC has given viewers a behind-the-scenes pass to their studios and newsroom with The Debrief.
The program is a high-energy, no-script combination week-in-review and look-ahead with the reporters locked in on those specific stories.
But, what makes the show work best is its host—David Ushery.
He is tailored perfectly for the “no time to waste” mentality that the show offers. It is easy to see that Ushery enjoys “winging it” without a teleprompter.
“Timing is so important with this, because the whole idea behind The Debrief is actually the pacing of it,” Ushery tells FishbowlNY. “…Our reporter who covered [a particular story] is just going to give you the nuts and bolts—here’s what you need to know,” Ushery says, snapping his fingers. “And then we’re going to move on.”
To that end, on one recent episode, Ushery guided viewers through seven different short bursts of interviews with colleagues or guests in the first 14-minute segment.
“I think it’s new for us in local news. If you look at some of the other national shows they’ve done movement around the newsroom and a different way of storytelling.” Ushery says. “But I think in local it’s kind of a new arena for the market.” (In October, WPIX started doing nightly newscasts without a desk in the newsroom.)
Ushery says it’s by design to have the show nonscripted.
“I do want it to sound like a conversation. I want the viewer to be the third party in the conversation.”
Throughout the 30-minute broadcast, reporters are placed throughout the newsroom or studio, as Ushery moves about the facilities unencumbered.
Although taped each Friday for airing on their digital outlet New York Nonstop numerous times during the weekend and on WNBC Sundays at noon, Ushery says the flow is kept intact.
“We try to do it in real time. The guests are tuned to that. The reporters are definitely tuned to that. The show, more or less, airs as we record it.”
Since the show involves many timely news stories, occasionally decisions need to be made about how to proceed.
“It can be tricky,” Ushery admits. “…We will, perhaps, go back and edit it.”
Usually, though, with breaking news, Ushery is able to keep things moving by alerting viewers to head for their website, and stay with Channel 4, for further details.
Once a show is completed, Ushery says, the process of putting the next one together is underway.
He is in constant contact with his producer Doreen Geiger throughout the week.
“It will morph, or will pivot because the news will pivot,” Ushery admits. “We’ve had to blow up shows on Thursday. We’ve got a pretty good idea, the week is unfolding, and then all kinds of stuff will happen.”
For Ushery, his name isn’t just in the title; he created the show and takes on unofficial ownership of The Debrief.
“I wanted to do something like this for a long time,” Ushery recalls. “I really felt that the game is changing, the world is changing, in terms of people who watch traditional newscasts. …I still think that the viewer wants information and they want to leave the table smarter than when they came.”
Ushery thought it was important having his name added to the title.
“I just think it was easier for the viewers because I’ve been in the market for so long to associate the show with me. …So they kind of know what they’re getting…. And I’m proud to have that…Because I think the viewer is getting a lot of information everywhere, so they need to connect with somebody.”
He says there’s another reason why this was the right time for Debrief.
“I think now, in the era of reality TV, people want to be a stakeholder in some way. …Anecdotally speaking, I think the viewer is appreciating that as they discover The Debrief.”
Ushery says, along with content being provided, the show had to be unique. He says showing typical anchors behind the desk wouldn’t cut it.
He eventually sat down with the news director about his idea.
“It’s got to look different. It’s got to feel different,” Ushery said. “And slowly it took shape.”
(Part of the look includes Ushery free of a necktie, as shown in the picture at the top.)
While The Debrief has been altered slightly since its first airing on Nonstop in October 2009, Ushery remains true to his opening line.
“8 million stories in the Naked City. And chances are you can only keep up with a fraction of them during your hectic day. Give us just a few minutes then to bring you up to speed on what New Yorkers are talking about.”
Ushery points out that The Debrief is “a news show, but it’s so much more.”
On any given broadcast, for example, viewers might be greeted by singer Jon Bon Jovi discussing affordable housing in New Jersey.
He says it’s always necessary to find the local tie-in for a story.
“But, what we try to do is leave you with a little kernel of something that perhaps you didn’t know,” Ushery says. “Not just what the headlines are saying.”
Ushery, 43, in his eighth year at WNBC, following 10 years at WABC, is also recognized by viewers as a weekend anchor and top fill-in for Chuck Scarborough.
“There’s a traditional expectation of the newscast. …You’re sometimes talking about some very hard-edged stories. …There’s not a lot of opportunity to just connect with the viewer, in terms of a personality, or allow yourself to express that.”
On a more serious note, though, Ushery is encouraged that, despite going up against stiff competition during NFL season, WNBC execs are proud of the product, and most importantly, what The Debrief offers viewers.
“People get a lot of information thrown at them,” Ushery says. “How do you cut through that and give them something that they can appreciate? That’s what we’re trying to do.”