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A willing anachronism

Times Staff Writer

Bob WRIGHT, the chairman of NBC Universal, has a theory about his prize employee, Brian Williams, who this week will become the face of the nation’s top-rated newscast.

“Early on in his broadcast career,” Wright mused recently, “somebody sat him down and said, ‘If you don’t act serious all the time, people won’t take you seriously.’ And that gave him a picture of himself in the back of his mind....”

Here’s the picture, off camera: Williams as cutup, devastatingly accurate mimic, former volunteer firefighter, NASCAR fan. On camera, though, dressed in his impeccable suits, he looks more like the conventionally handsome, button-down guy central casting dispatched to play an old school role -- anchorman of the kind of newscast that was once an American dinnertime institution but now is increasingly losing younger viewers to cable and the Internet.

Williams has heard it all before and takes a certain perverse pride in his decorous style. “If you want loose, there’s plenty of that” elsewhere on TV, he said. “If I have a fault, it’s probably too many years of Catholic school training. I have still -- whether I am electronically or physically invited into someone’s home -- a notion of how I should behave. So I wear a tie to work and I usually treat it with some seriousness when people invite me into their home. And look, post-9/11, most of what we do in these broadcasts is so ungodly serious these days, I’m willing to be called an anachronism if propriety is the charge.”

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Still, as the first network in two decades to make a major anchor change, NBC is hoping it can position Williams as someone able, as Wright puts it, to “connect to people at all kinds of levels.” It’s one of the main challenges the network faces as it manages the tricky transition at “NBC Nightly News,” following Tom Brokaw’s decision to step down after 21 years in the role.

Another surprise factor got thrown into the mix last week when CBS’ Dan Rather said that he would step aside as well, on March 9. No replacement has been named.

After a decade of waiting in the wings, so long that “heir apparent” has seemingly become grafted onto his name, the 45-year-old Williams on Thursday will slide into the anchor chair he has dreamed about occupying since he was a boy (“I grew up thinking this was the sine qua non,” he said). Unlike when Rather took over for Walter Cronkite in 1981 or when ABC’s Peter Jennings had to step in after Frank Reynolds’ death in 1983, it has been an agonizingly long transition, stretched out by Brokaw’s decision to stick around a few years more than he intended, to report on the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

NBC’s finishing school

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Williams is walking into a landscape that has changed dramatically since he first aspired to the job. In the 1980s, he recalled, when he was covering the White House, Brit Hume, then ABC’s White House correspondent, would stick his head in Williams’ office and quip, “Are you addressing the American people tonight?” Hume is now the lead anchor for Fox News Channel, whose opinionated talk shows and around-the-clock news have been key factors in the roiling TV news landscape, siphoning younger viewers from the three broadcast networks that used to have the turf to themselves. Fracturing the audience even further are attitude-driven upstarts such as Comedy Central’s faux-news “Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” along with Internet sites and technological innovations such as delivering headlines via cellphone alerts.

Still, among the broadcast networks, NBC’s evening newscast is the leader, pulling in an average 9.8 million viewers per night and estimated revenues of just over $100 million this calendar year. So in the last couple of years, before being entrusted with the premier chair in broadcast news, Williams has been attending a finishing school of sorts.

Although he was already a seasoned reporter and anchor with the difficult White House beat and an hourlong nightly cable newscast under his belt, he still had some ground to cover.

In 1999, a New York Post TV critic quoted Williams as saying on MSNBC, during a report on the Columbine High School massacre: “We should tell you that we are approaching 9:15 on the East Coast, 6:15 on the West Coast, on a day that follows one and precedes another, a day that is filled with 24 hours, each hour seeming like so many more....” And that was just for starters. Williams talks more succinctly now.

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He popped up around the globe, including a recent trip to cover Yasser Arafat’s funeral, as NBC sent him on a whirlwind of reporting assignments to give him the foreign experience he lacks. For a while, Williams was assigned to work with a veteran executive producer with four decades of experience in evening news. In the last eight months, he has traveled to NBC affiliate stations across the country, putting in face time and taping promotional ads. Many more of those trips lie ahead.

And to soften his sometimes-too- serious demeanor, he’s been booked on late-night comedy programs and on “Imus in the Morning,” where he held his own even at 6:30 a.m. ET after a sleepless election night. “Brian is indeed charming and funny, so we’ve looked for more ways to show that,” said Neal Shapiro, the president of NBC News. Thursday’s handover -- Brokaw’s last night will also be the last night of the November sweeps ratings period -- will be the first major network anchor change since Brokaw and Jennings themselves got sole custody of their jobs in 1983.

Williams already has one leg up: There is no intimation that Williams is pushing anyone aside, as there was when Cronkite was replaced by Rather, who had been moved up by CBS bosses to keep him from jumping to a rival network; some viewers at the time were angered at the treatment of the man they had come to think of as “Uncle Walter.”

Nonetheless, the competition is already salivating. In preparation for the switch, ABC’s second-place “World News Tonight” has tweaked its show to include more in-depth reports and investigative pieces and sent Jennings on the road.

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Since early July, it has also been running promotional ads under the pointed tag line: “Trust is earned.” Before Rather’s surprise announcement, CBS executives too had hoped that Williams’ arrival would send viewers searching the dial for other options and perhaps end up giving a boost to Rather.

“You know the audience is going to go channel shopping because that happens in all transitions,” said Jeff Gralnick, who has overseen both the ABC and NBC newscasts and now is a consultant with NBC News, where until earlier this year he worked with Williams’ now-defunct cable newscast. “I will tell you that no audience has been better prepared for an anchor transition.”

Getting the audience acclimated has meant a delicate dance to showcase Williams while not stepping on Brokaw’s farewell. Williams was charged with putting together the lead stories from the conventions for “Nightly News” as well as reporting from the podium for both MSNBC’s and NBC’s prime time coverage. He was a constant presence from Athens during NBC’s telecast of the Summer Olympics, making a mad overnight flight home just in time to report from the Republican National Convention in New York.

But on election night, Williams was relegated to reporting from a small room in the restaurant NBC had taken over for the evening rather than a plum seat at the anchor desk as Brokaw presided over what is likely to be his last big story. Displaying some of that off-camera wit, Williams dryly welcomed an election night visitor to “my little portion of the Sea Grill.”

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Even as he moves to larger quarters, there’s no guarantee he’ll be a huge audience draw, if his cable show is any indication. The program, which aired first on MSNBC, drew a paltry 400,000 viewers a night when it moved to CNBC. Of the show’s ratings problems, Wright said: “Straight news shows on cable don’t do that well. It has to have a lot more tricks to it than straight news. If Fox [News Channel] taught us anything, it taught us that.” Williams, who’s believed to have bridled at suggestions that he needed to bring more “edge” to the show, would say only that “during that moment in MSNBC’s history, it was clear that my brand of news was not congruent with their thoughts of what they wanted prime time to be. No offense taken.”

NBC executives prefer to focus on the fact that the audience has stuck around whenever Williams has substituted for Brokaw in recent years as his main replacement. Williams is likely to put some of his own stamp on the job with more time spent out of the studio and in the field, Shapiro said.

Part of Williams’ job will be to recruit viewers in his own age group, the ones who no longer have the evening newscast habit. He also has been lobbying behind the scenes to have the “NBC Nightly News” rebroadcast each night at 7 on one of NBC’s cable channels to draw a wider audience. “It’s under discussion,” said Shapiro, who wouldn’t comment further.

Ready to lead

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On the cusp of attaining his dream job, Williams said that despite the hurdles, the post “still retains its allure and romance to me.” The job itself, as it came to be embodied in Brokaw, has more to it than reading the news each night: Brokaw threw his power around in the hiring and firing of news division executives and in lobbying network programmers to give more time to news events such as political conventions.

“It’s not just the day-to-day job; it’s what you come to mean to a news division,” Williams said. “I can’t wait to lead. This is the greatest staff ever assembled in television news.” But, he added, “Power comes to you when it’s earned over time.”

Private and devoted to spending time with his two children and his wife, Williams is about to enter a new realm of public attention. Racing through the hall at the Democratic National Convention in Boston to get to a floor interview, Williams was stopped repeatedly by friends in the business -- and a fan. Media stars were a dime a dozen, but Williams was waylaid by a woman so overwrought that it took her some time to spit out that she was from New Jersey while he tried to make small talk. Williams took it good-naturedly. “It’s always good to see family,” he quipped after she had finally gone on her way.

But at other times he seemed surprisingly unaware of the spotlight that is about to hit him full in the face. Interviewing Al Sharpton for MSNBC after the former Democratic candidate’s rousing and off-text convention speech, Williams asked him to explain his “riff, or whatever you did a riff on.”

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That brought a harsh critique from “Daily Show” host Stewart, who screamed in mock outrage the next night, “You were there!” Williams explained later that it was almost impossible to hear while on the podium situated behind the speakers and said he was just being “conversational” with Sharpton. “I love the ‘Daily Show,’ so anything they do is fine with me,” Williams said, adding that such criticism “comes with the territory.”

But now, as Williams finally hits the big time, he’ll need to tune out the running commentary about how he’s doing. Gralnick noted: “It’s just a question of sitting down and doing it and paying zero attention to all of you people who will write about every possible movement of every tenth of a point of every rating system known to man.”


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