When NBC's new magazine, "American Almanac," premieres tonight, its most devoted viewers will be upstairs in the Fourways restaurant -- the appointed meeting place for the program's 42-member staff.
Most of them have already seen the show many times, and most will watch with agitation, uncertain if the Washington-based news magazine will bring good ratings and public plaudits to the network's bureau on Nebraska Avenue.
"I have the dubious distinction of producing the first piece in the first broadcast, and I'm scared. If the Enola Gay piece is a clunker, they may not stay through the whole show," said field producer Steve Skinner.
"I've seen it 30 times, and I have no perspective on it. I'm sick of it."
"It's a great piece!" called field producer Robin Smith from her desk nearby.
"I'll be in shock probably tomorrow night between 8 and 10," Skinner said yesterday. "Just the fact that it's run on the air is enough to give me the jitters."
Featured in the piece is Richard Jeppson, assistant weaponeer for the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima 40 years ago. It took Skinner a month to reach Jeppson, who hasn't granted an interview since World War II.
"You're not going to see the confrontational kinds of things '60 Minutes' trots out. We'll do life style stories that affect people who are not rich and famous," said Skinner. Future segments will focus on AIDS, the success of Asians in the United States and the growth of Christian rock music. The show is to air each month until January, when it is tentatively scheduled to begin weekly production.
NBC's earlier news magazine ventures, such as "NBC Magazine With David Brinkley," "Monitor" and "First Camera," were not successes, but there is confidence among staff members that "American Almanac," anchored by Roger Mudd, will fare better.
"I think it's going to work," said field producer Susan Udelson, who went on to explain herself in a word:
"Roger. He's real good. I think when they picked him they were making a commitment for the long haul."
Mudd emerged from his office to talk to Udelson, seated at her desk in the offices NBC used for election and inaugural coverage. All eyes turned toward him.
"Did you ever get your dinner at Lion d'Or?" he asked. Udelson won a dinner for two at the pricey restaurant for coming up with the name "American Almanac."
Udelson laughed. "No I haven't, but I should," she said.
"Yes, you should," said Mudd.
Unlike CBS' "60 Minutes" and ABC's "20/20," which are based in New York, "American Almanac" will originate in Washington, a city where Mudd and executive producer Edward Fouhy are based. "Every phase of American life has some sort of association here," said Mudd. "There's the Library of Congress and several good universities. Living and working here and dealing with the news is a lot easier than it is in New York."
Was Mudd, too, anxious about the program's reception?
"I'm a little nervous, a little scared. Not because I'm not confident, but because it's a new assignment," said Mudd.
The show is a new assignment for many staff members, including a number drawn from newspapers as well as radio and TV.
"You can't do a magazine with people who've done five or six magazine shows. That's why they hired people from print and radio and other networks," said news editor Richard Harris, who spent seven years working on National Public Radio's 90-minute news show "All Things Considered."
In May the new staff spent three days at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, discussing the show's format. "That was my first day on the job. Riding through the beautiful pastoral hills of West Virginia, I said, 'Boy, did I make the right decision,' " said Harris.
Harris has also some apprehensions: "I'm scared to death because I think right now we're a little bit overwhelmed at the idea of putting out a monthly magazine. The thought of doing this on a weekly basis is hard to imagine."
But Mary Hickey, a researcher/reporter who worked as a reporter for The Miami Herald, said, "I can't wait to go weekly."
The Washington base has made it easier to recruit good people, according to Fouhy. "It's a desirable place to live and work." Fouhy plans to spend the weekend in Bermuda, and won't return home until after the Tuesday ratings are out. "We've just done the best we can and the viewer will decide."
Field producer Huston Simmons, whose experience is chiefly in documentaries, said he was happy to be sent to Paris for his first assignment, but didn't want to say what the assignment was.
He said he is not certain what kind of reception the magazine will get. "If it's favorable, I'll take it very seriously."
And if it's not favorable?
"We have a year's contract, so I'm not exactly considering myself NBC staff."
The staff has taken the uncertainty with a sense of humor.
On the bulletin board outside Mudd's office is a short cheer that Mudd wrote after getting a letter from a five-member Roger Mudd fan club: "Don't be a Dud! Listen to Mudd! He's our man!"
It is signed "Roger Mudd."