On-Air Apparent? : The buzz on Brian Williams is that he may anchor ‘NBC Nightly News’ when Tom Brokaw retires, but he’s the last guy who wants to talk about it.
Brian Williams is a stand-up fellow, a smart man, a really nice guy. But if you want to get those little hairs on the back of his razor-cut neck to stand on end, if you want to see him chomp down extra hard on the earpiece of his sunglasses, then whisper these two words to the NBC White House correspondent:
Heir apparent .
“It was a figment of some television critic’s imagination,” the 36-year-old Williams said of the well-circulated rumor that he will ascend to the “NBC Nightly News” anchor chair when55-year-old Tom Brokaw retires.
“It is very flattering to have my name connected with that job. But it would be absolutely nuts for anyone to say it on the record. They are also thinking Ed Bradley and Ted Koppel, whenever their deals are up,” he said, referring to the CBS “60 Minutes” correspondent and ABC “Nightline” host, respectively. “If (my bosses) aren’t thinking that, I don’t want to work for them.”
Well, truth be told, Williams is in heaven at NBC, having come to the network as a reporter two years ago after a career in local news. Five months later, he was named anchor of the Saturday evening newscast. In November, he became White House correspondent, arguably the most visible beat in network news (Williams’ predecessor, Andrea Mitchell, had the most stories on network newscasts last year).
And the White House beat is where Brokaw and longtime CBS anchorman Dan Rather competed before they each became the most important figure in their respective news departments--possibly even their whole network.
“In all of the years Bill Cosby was the killer for NBC, he was never looked at as the NBC spokesman. Brokaw embodies the network. The main anchor has, at least historically, been the first face that represents the network,” said Steve Dickstein, Williams’ agent and, admittedly, not a passive observer of the “heir apparent” debate.
For those who believe that news is just glorified gossip, the gossip about who is where and what does it all mean in the television news business is a connoisseur’s game. Looking at who is headed for the network anchor desks, the pinnacles of the ABC, NBC and CBS pyramids, is a ball constantly in play.
ABC’s Peter Jennings has a long-term contract and has shown no intentions of leaving his post. An ABC spokeswoman said news management expects Jennings to be there for a very long time and is hardly preparing for his demise. CBS’ Rather has a contract through the year 2000, and, in any case, Connie Chung’s emergence on the evening news desk next to him (even though Rather generally takes the lead on breaking news events) mitigates talk of succession at that network. CBS News, through a spokeswoman, said it is happy with the pair’s work and prefers not to talk about what another network might do.
But Brokaw, with less than two years left on his contract, has said publicly that he might want to get out of the daily news grind at that point. It was reported that he was asked by President Clinton to head the National Park Service and that he was quite tempted to do it. He owns a radio station in his native South Dakota and a large ranch in Montana, both states where Democrats have long encouraged him to be their candidate for the U.S. Senate.
So when Williams--genial, well-read, handsome and untainted by network wars--was hired from WCBS-TV, the New York flagship for CBS, where he had been a reporter and noon anchor, the word went out that his potential at the network was without bound.
“I’ve done a lot of recruiting in the years I’ve been in the business, and the thing that really impressed me about Brian was his ability to do good reporting under pressure,” said Don Browne, now the president and general manager of WTMJ-TV, the NBC-owned station in Miami, but then the network’s executive in charge of news recruiting.
“We wanted to grow a new generation at NBC News,” Browne said. “CBS was coming on very strong, wanting to keep him, but we made clear we had designs on him more than just being a correspondent. We thought then he had the potential to be a major anchor as well. I think that Brian is, without a doubt, a substantial part of the future of NBC News.”
Williams walked in the door at NBC’s 30 Rockefeller Center headquarters in New York at what could have been the nadir of the news division’s existence.
“The first day I toured this building, on everyone’s TV set there was this news conference with General Motors. People were glued to the screen. It was something with a truck and flames, but I didn’t quite understand,” Williams said. “I soon learned when I saw the news conference in its entirety that NBC was in deep trouble and they needed to do some big repair work.”
That day, in February, 1993, GM was announcing that it was suing NBC News because it had faked an explosion of a GM truck on its “Dateline” program. NBC apologized, but it was a terribly embarrassing episode. Michael Gartner, a newspaper executive who had come in to straighten up the news operation, instead resigned in disgrace. The last person he had hired was Brian Williams.
In Gartner’s place as president of NBC News, the network hired a former CBS producer, Andrew Lack, who despite working in the same building with Williams for several years had met him only once. But what he saw of Williams he liked.
“He’s one of the few young reporters in our business today who can think quickly,” Lack said. “Brian has this wonderful ability to fill his pockets with information and use that to get new information. (In addition), we have to be storytellers and he’s a very good one. That’s why he’s emerged at the top of his generation of reporters.”
Lack was not going to let Williams, with a reported $2-million contract over four years, sit on the back bench. Garrick Utley, a 30-year network veteran, left the network soon after Gartner. His post as Saturday “Nightly News” anchor was open, and Lack dropped in Williams, a heady call regarding a fellow whose network career could be measured in mere weeks, not years.
Williams spent the next year globe-trotting with his producer, Jonathan Wald, the 29-year-old son of former NBC News President Richard Wald, now a vice president at ABC News. They covered the “hot-spot” stories: the new administration in South Africa, the embargo in Haiti, the continued chaos in the Middle East, the earthquake in Los Angeles. And, when he had a spare moment in New York, Williams subbed for Brokaw.
“His biggest strength is his ability to dive right in and get any job done,” said the younger Wald. “In addition, there isn’t a lot anchorish about him. My dad likes him. But, more important, my mother really likes Brian. Mothers are generally right. He gets the highest rating among mothers of anyone I know.”
That is in no way a problem. Network news divisions like solid reporting, but they like it even better from a likable guy.
“The network anchor has to bring with him credibility and, to a good extent, likability,” said Roger Cohen, chairman of the department of journalism and mass communications at Rutgers University. “You have to have it as a reporter to have it as an anchor, at least on that level.”
Williams’ move to the White House beat was a logical one for NBC, if indeed it is seasoning him for the big anchor chair, for it may be the most diverse and most influential beat job there is.
“The story from there is almost always important,” said Brokaw, who covered the White House during Watergate. “There is the prospect of war one day and a pure political battle the next. On the third, you can be talking of tax cuts, and the fourth day there can be some kind of human interest story. . . . And you bump up against a whole lot of important people, to say the least.”
Williams is quite aware that he is in the middle of a good run.
“There are only three jobs like mine, and it’s terrific,” he said. “It is a resume entry I have coveted and one they will never be able to take away from me.”
W illiams’ early years hardly presaged his future. His par ents were 40 when Brian, younger by 12 years than his next youngest sibling, was born. He was 9, and the last one at home, when the family moved from Elmira, N.Y., to Middletown, N.J., along the north Jersey shore.
He went to a small parochial high school, Mater Dei, where he did every extracurricular activity he could find. He was a volunteer fireman and worked odd jobs as well. But when he graduated, he was a bit lost.
“I went to a community college in Middletown because I didn’t have, I guess, the commitment to go to a four-year school,” Williams said. “Then one day, I went to Washington because a friend of mine wanted to visit his girlfriend and got a near-fatal case of Potomac Fever.”
He transferred to Catholic University and got a job writing press releases for the university. Through a friend of a friend, he got an internship at the White House, then occupied by President Jimmy Carter. Eventually, it became a paying job and Williams put college on hold.
“I was 20 and I was walking through the northwest gate of the White House,” he said. “That was as heady an experience as I thought I would ever have.”
When Carter lost his bid for reelection in 1980, Williams found an entry-level job at the National Assn. of Broadcasters. One day, he and his boss, Ken Schanzer, who now is head of the Baseball Network, had lunch with a visiting news director from Pittsburg, Kan. Williams asked the guy for a job, and before long he was in the middle of nowhere making $146 a week.
“Thirteen months later, I thought I had completely washed out,” Williams said. “Success there meant getting to Tulsa. Doing ‘Good Morning, Tulsa’ was what you did when you got out of Pittsburg, Kan., and I hadn’t made it.”
He went back to Washington and being a Guy Friday at the NAB. A few months later, he knew he had to give TV one more shot. He walked over to the local Metromedia (now Fox) station, WTTG, and asked for any old job. He got it: as the weekend man on the machine that types in the titles over the news video.
But yet another light shone on Williams in the person of the late Betty Endicott, news director at WTTG.
“She called me in one day and said, ‘You’ve been watching every broadcast. Who’s the weakest reporter on our staff?’ ” Williams recalled. “I told her that wasn’t really fair, so she got up and closed the door and made it a condition of leaving the office. So I told her--a name I’ve never disclosed. She said, ‘You’re right and you start in two weeks.’
“Scale at the time was 28-five a year and I was the happiest man in Washington. I hadn’t washed out after all,” he said, looking at the ceiling and still thankful for that good fortune.
The run wasn’t to stop, however. One day, Maury Povich, the host of “Panorama,” the station’s newsmagazine, had to go to New York for the day and Endicott tabbed Williams to replace him.
“I had never done a live hour and didn’t want to. I was a hard-news guy,” Williams said. “They had this new female executive producer starting that day whom I met an hour before the broadcast in the control room. At 4 that afternoon, I told (sports director) Bernie Smilovitz that I had met the woman I was going to marry. And Jane (Stoddard) and I are now married nine years.”
Smilovitz helped Williams get an agent, Dickstein, and Dickstein eventually got him an offer from WCAU-TV, the CBS-owned station in Philadelphia. He was there only 18 months before, as with a player on a farm team in baseball, to use his analogy, “my slider improved and WCBS called. My home market,” said Williams, still enthusiastic at the thought of working at the station he grew up watching.
“That was a series of jobs where, every time, I thought I had peaked. To me, I really had,” he said.
I s there another peak ahead?
“This is an extraordinary run, and that’s why this ‘heir apparent’ business is maddening,” Williams said. “These are pinnacle jobs I’ve had. I have two terrific kids whom I coo with over the phone and a wife with whom I do the same.
“Has anyone said anything to me? They’d be nuts,” he said, agitated. “If they were going to share any plan with me, they’d be crazy. I’ve got a contract that expires in two years. Two years! That’s all I know.”
Said an agent who represents other network reporters: “I think NBC made a mistake by even implying that Williams could replace Brokaw. The kid has huge potential, but they have spoiled it for him.
“Do you swell a head? Do you discourage other people from busting their asses or putting themselves in harm’s way because there is already a designee?” said the agent, who asked to remain anonymous. “If I were Brian Williams, I wouldn’t want to be the designee and have everyone shooting at me.”
Brokaw tends to agree.
“I think it’s unfair to him, though it doesn’t bother me at all,” he said. “It saddles him with an expectation that he may or may not want to be public. He’s a contender and could very well have the job at some point. But I don’t think it’s fair to think of him that way right now.”
Williams’ bosses and some other critics downplay the “heir apparent” stuff, saying that the news business is a different animal today.
“That’s a very traditional question, when everything about the work we do is changing so fast it may not make sense any more,” said NBC News President Lack. “I don’t want to diminish the importance of the anchor job. Tom Brokaw is still the personification of the integrity and intelligence and, I hope, the exciting approach we take with news at NBC. The fact is, Tom would be the first to point out that the opportunities in broadcast news these days are much different than when he ascended to that Peacock throne. I don’t know that Brian Williams, three to five years from now, were he to look at the opportunities he has at NBC, would even choose to be ‘Nightly News’ anchor.”
“If you think about the top job as being heir apparent to Tom Brokaw, that’s shortsighted,” said Don Browne, the man who brought Williams to NBC. “We don’t define the networks anymore by the news that comes on at 6:30 but in a much bigger way: magazine shows, specials, breaking news.”
Said Phyllis Kaniss, a professor at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania: “It’s become easier for even Presidents to go around network news to get their message out. Going around the networks makes them less powerful and less essential.
“In many markets, the local newscast outdraws Jennings and Rather and Brokaw,” she said. “If that continues, would the job be as attractive as, maybe, a newsmagazine job?”
In any case, Williams says he’s too busy and too happy to worry about it:
“I was one of those people who covered the arrival of Air Force One in Philly and New York, standing on the Tarmac wondering what the life was like for those reporters up there. I can start with a much more basic level than that. I was one of the kids watching White House correspondents like Robert Pierpont on that lawn on TV.
“Now I’m on the plane, which is an awesome experience. Let alone when you’re reading a book at 2 in the morning and the only other one awake on the plane is the night-owl President. He comes out of the doorway and he wants to talk about the book you’re reading.
“Why should I even think about more?”