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Mystery Solved: ‘Dateline’ Finds Path From TV to Podcast Stardom

The podcast begins with the sound of a car slowing down, and then a straight-talking narrator takes over. “It was dark when the killer shut off the engine,” he says.

Over the next three minutes, eerie music kicks in and the host, Josh Mankiewicz, sets the scene: a freezing Colorado night, a woman shot in front of colleagues, a masked killer.

“Who was guilty of murder?” Mr. Mankiewicz asks. “Who was not? And who got away with it?”

A week after its debut, on Sept. 20, the show, “Internal Affairs,” landed at No. 1 on Apple’s U.S. podcast chart.

That was not much of a surprise. Podcasts from Mr. Mankiewicz and his colleagues always seem to make the top of the charts. What is more surprising is where they work: “Dateline,” the long-in-the-tooth and occasionally overlooked television newsmagazine from NBC.

Of course, true crime and podcasts go hand in hand. The Hulu comedy “Only Murders in the Building” is explicitly a parody of the ubiquitousness of the genre. And there are plenty of other podcasts on the charts that center on bloody mysteries, with titles like “Morbid,” “Crime Junkie” and “My Favorite Murder.”

Still, the “Dateline” podcasts are helping the genre reach a new audience. The median age of viewers of the Friday night edition of “Dateline” is 63, according to Nielsen. On Spotify, the median age of a “Dateline” podcast listener is 41, according to data from Chartable, which was supplied by NBC News.

The network declined to disclose revenue figures for the podcasts, but they appear to be helping the company’s bottom line. The “Dateline” series command an advertising rate on a par with the podcast version of the popular public radio show “Fresh Air,” according to Standard Media Index, which collects advertising data.

It has been quite a turn of events for a 30-year-old television show.

The show, which premiered in 1992 with Stone Phillips and Jane Pauley as co-anchors, began as a traditional TV newsmagazine — with three to five segments that typically included interviews, features and investigations.

In the 1990s, during network television’s newsmagazine craze, “Dateline” could occupy as much as five hours of NBC’s prime-time schedule each week. Over the past 20 years, the show has remained a mainstay of the NBC schedule, filling in gaps whenever called upon in addition to holding its usual Friday night slot.

“Those of us within the hallways of NBC News have always understood the value of ‘Dateline,’” said Noah Oppenheim, the president of NBC News. “Historically, to many regimes past, whenever a fall entertainment lineup would start to wobble, we would always get the call to fill those open slots with additional ‘Dateline’ hours on the broadcast network.”

Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

In 2005, “Dateline” began to transform, starting to move more aggressively into true crime. With broadcast viewership steadily falling, murders simply rated better.

Soon, four or five segments became one hourlong story, with true crime as the sole focus of the series. Many episodes had a tidy beginning, middle and end, with a mystery solved — viewers preferred it that way.

By the late 2010s, the “Dateline” producers were considering adding podcasts to the staff’s workload. The competition, they felt, was lacking.

“I got really irritated with all the amateur crime podcasts,” said David Corvo, the senior executive producer of “Dateline.” “I said, Wait a minute, we can do this way better than this.”

So Mr. Corvo and Ms. Cole, who recently sat together for an interview in the “Dateline” offices on the 19th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, went about trying to persuade the show’s team of correspondents to take on more work. Keith Morrison, a veteran correspondent on the show, was not initially convinced. Mr. Morrison, whom the comedian Bill Hader portrayed on “Saturday Night Live” as a reporter reveling in every gruesome detail of a crime, wondered if the workload would be too much.

“I just didn’t think we’re in the podcast business,” he said. “We’re in the TV business. It felt like going back to radio.”

But once Mr. Morrison, a veteran of TV news since the 1960s, finally gave it a whirl, he loved it. By the end of last week, two older TV segments narrated by Mr. Morrison as podcast episodes were in the top 10 of the Apple charts.

It has been a learning curve for the staff. Each story for the podcast is told over six one-hour episodes, requiring far different pacing from the hour it gets on television. And some things the staff once took for granted — such as using captions whenever audio from an interview or police recording was garbled — did not work on a podcast. They had to learn new tricks.

“When we figured out how to do it, by golly, it was just a delight — maybe that’s the wrong word to use for murder mysteries,” Mr. Morrison said. “But doing these stories via podcast has been more pleasurable than most things I’ve done in my ridiculously long career.”

“Internal Affairs,” the podcast hosted by Mr. Mankiewicz, a longtime reporter for Dateline, will consist of six episodes, with an episode released each week until mid-October. Next year, “Dateline” is planning on rolling out another four original series. The “Dateline” podcast with repurposed TV segments will continue its twice-a-week pace. (Last year, executives cut the output from three times a week because, as Ms. Cole put it, “at a certain point, you will run out of inventory.”)

Indeed, the adaptation to podcasting has gone better than either Ms. Cole or Mr. Corvo could have anticipated.

“I used to constantly ask, ‘How do people listen?’” Mr. Corvo said. “I know how people watch TV — I’ve been doing it for 50 years. Obviously, we’ve figured it out, but I said to Liz once, ‘I don’t think I know what I’m doing.’ And she said, ‘Our podcasts are No. 1!’”

Ms. Cole finished the thought: “Of course, we know what we’re doing!”

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