Mr. Ebersol continued to work the Hollywood scene, eventually landing a much-coveted production deal with NBC Universal. Roughly two years ago, while on the lookout for projects, Mr. Ebersol met a young producer for NBC Dateline named Adam Ciralsky. Mr. Ciralsky had an idea for a series. Mr. Ebersol liked it. The two men—one with an idea and one with the ability to open doors—clicked. Meetings with then NBC Universal head Ben Silverman eventually led to a green light in Hollywood, which eventually led to moral, financial and personnel support for The Wanted from the NBC News division back in New York. It almost seemed charmed. Or, blessed, rather.
Yet, like Mr. Eberson’s documentary about the South African school, The Wanted soon ran into controversy. Months before it was ready to air, the series triggered a round of stories in the press questioning the producers’ methodology. When reporters from The Wanted showed up at a small college in Maryland for a confrontational interview with a native of Rwanda who had been accused of war crimes (which he denied) and who was now teaching French at the school, the college president, a former journalist himself, criticized the producers for seemingly working hand-in-hand with Rwandan prosecutors. Human rights observers worried publicly that the show would accidentally target innocent individuals. Federal officials worried that such tactics could interfere with their investigations. Media watchdogs wondered aloud if it was such a good idea for NBC to further blur the line between journalists and law enforcement. Foreign correspondents scratched their heads.
At the same time, Mr. Ebersol was proving to have something of a tin ear to the mounting concerns. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he explained that camera crew members were asked to watch The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum before shooting for the series—not exactly the kind of disclosure that would reassure critics worried that The Wanted was a shallow entertainment series masquerading as news.
When the first episode aired, most TV critics piled on (“Silly, self-important and journalistically out to lunch,” wrote David Zurawik in The Baltimore Sun) while other critics, including Tom Shales of The Washington Post and a wide array of conservative bloggers, complimented it. But the low ratings ensured the series’ abbreviated run. After who knows how many millions of dollars spent on development, production and promotion, NBC executives said that after two episodes, they were done.
In the meantime, articles in outlets such as The New Republic and Buffalo News continued to take in-depth looks at some of the subjects targeted in The Wanted and inevitably found that the cases were complicated, nuanced and layered—not the kind of situations that would work in a simple good guys vs. bad guys format. Producers, it seemed, should have known better.
Overall, The Wanted amounted to what was arguably the worst public-relations hit that a broadcast news network has taken since CBS’s “Rather-gate controversy” and Mr. Rather’s subsequent lawsuit against his former employers.
In the end, NBC News executives won’t say exactly how much they spent on two poorly rated episodes of The Wanted, and no one has reported a precise figure in the press. Nor is it entirely clear what, if anything, will happen to the remaining episodes that have yet to air. Earlier this summer, ShineReveille International purchased worldwide distribution rights to the series. Questions to ShineReveille about the possibility of The Wanted airing overseas were referred back to Mr. Ebersol, who did not return repeated emails about this story from The Observer.
Of course, nobody is likely to lose their jobs for The Wanted’s shortcomings. Television development has a notoriously high fatality rate. Even when you’re succeeding, 95 percent of your new series might fizzle. Experimentation, even failure, can be a good thing—if you’re willing to acknowledge the reasons underlying the failure.
For instance: to judge by The Wanted, big swaggering production values aren’t a magic solution to breaking through viewers’ apathy when it comes to international news. Also, famous TV pedigree or not, experience matters. No word on what Mr. Ebersol will take on next for NBC, but perhaps this time he should stay closer to home.