NBC anchor Brian Williams was leaving his third-floor studio at Rockefeller Center after a recent broadcast when he was confronted with yet another reminder of his industry’s precarious footing.
This time, it came in the form of a dozen Bard College undergraduates, touring the NBC newsroom for journalism class.
“Anyone grow up in a household where people actually watched the news at 6:30?” asked the anchor, stopping to chat with them before he headed out. The students shuffled their feet. One young woman tentatively raised her hand.
“One?” asked Williams, smiling wryly. “Well, without sounding like a commercial announcement, the broadcast you just saw is the single largest source of news in the United States.”
“A lot of people are out there writing early obituaries and saying it’s all going to Google,” he added. “I don’t believe that. I think we have a power that they don’t.”
You can’t blame Williams for sounding a little defensive. Today marks his first anniversary in the anchor chair since inheriting the job from Tom Brokaw, and while the newly installed NBC anchor has earned plaudits and healthy ratings in his first year, he’s also had to contend with a growing uncertainty about the future of the evening newscast.
As overall viewership continues to ebb, the industry has been awash in predictions about the demise of the traditional 6:30 p.m. broadcast. The rapid-fire departure of legends like Brokaw, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Ted Koppel only heightened a general sense of unease about the future, especially as ABC and CBS are still in limbo about who will take over their flagship broadcasts.
Still a relative newcomer, the 46-year-old Williams is now the dean of network news and the only permanent anchor of an evening newscast. Despite the upheaval, he remains bullish about the genre.
“This is the closest you can come to really hitting a swath of the American viewing audience,” he said. “And when a Katrina happens or, God forbid, a 9/11, people come back to the so-called Big Three over-the-air networks in droves.”
But that doesn’t mean that he’s counting on the stature of the network news to prevail against the tide of new technology. As he’s settled into his new role, Williams has worked to straddle the worlds of old media and new media.
“I’ve not been forced to change because of a competition model,” he said. “Tom had Peter and Dan chasing him around the globe, that always kept him sharp. I’ve been kept sharp this year by innovation, by the need to modernize.”
Since May, he has posted daily entries on his MSNBC.com blog, “The Daily Nightly,” about the makings of the newscast -- some written on his Blackberry while he’s on location reporting a story -- in an effort to bring a new form of transparency to the process. Last month, the website began offering a netcast of the “NBC Nightly News” online every night after it airs on the West Coast, due in large part to his efforts.
“He’s at the forefront,” said Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Universal Television Group. “I think he’s helping push NBC News into the new era.”
In many ways, Williams’ first year as a network anchor has been marked by an odd duality. With his buttoned-down delivery, earnestly furrowed brow and oft-expressed reverence for the traditions of broadcast news, he represents the standard-bearer for the conventional television anchor role -- even as he’s at the vanguard of its transformation.
“He’s really made an effort to think about the future, rather than just take over a newscast that was functioning pretty well,” said network news analyst Andrew Tyndall, who tracks the evening newscasts for a weekly report. “The fact that he’s thinking about what the anchor’s job is going to be like in five years is encouraging.”
Williams didn’t go into his new job with a plan to remake the evening news for the new century. When he took the helm of the “NBC Nightly News” last Dec. 2, he was focused more on trying to manage the inevitable comparisons with his predecessor.
As to whether he felt any anxiety about the hand-off, he quipped, “Just the nervousness that would come when taking over for an icon.”
That said, “I’ve never suffered for a lack of self-confidence,” Williams added matter-of-factly, his tall frame folded onto a couch in his book-lined corner office on a recent afternoon. “I knew I would succeed; you have to, I think. I couldn’t go into any venture any other way.”
In many ways, he had been groomed for the job for more than a decade. Once Williams joined the network in 1993, plucked from the CBS affiliate in New York, it was clear NBC considered him a potential successor to Brokaw. He quickly was made White House correspondent and then got his own live newscast, “The News With Brian Williams,” an hourlong program that aired on NBC’s sister cable channels for eight years. He also anchored the Saturday edition of the “NBC Nightly News” and regularly filled in for Brokaw during the week.
A regular guy
In Williams -- a NASCAR fan and former volunteer firefighter who grew up in upstate New York and later the north shore of New Jersey -- NBC found an anchor with Everyman qualities, the perfect foil to defuse complaints about the media elite.
Still, the network was nervous about the departure of Brokaw, who had led NBC’s newscast for 21 years. Would audiences take to a more youthful, unseasoned newscaster, one who drew only modest ratings on his cable show? Would second-place ABC finally have an opening to bump NBC from its top-rated perch?
In the end, the carefully planned handoff was the smoothest transition in what would emerge as one of television news’ most tumultuous years.
While Williams’ audience -- an average of 9.3 million people so far this year -- is about 5% smaller than what Brokaw was drawing at the same point last year, he has maintained a hefty margin over his competitors at ABC, whose evening newscast has averaged 8.8 million viewers this year, and CBS, which has pulled in 7 million. In the last month, the viewership of “NBC Nightly News” swelled to an average of 10.3 million, according to Nielsen Media Research.
“Brian has done a remarkable job,” said Bob Schieffer, interim anchor of the “CBS Evening News.” “He’s putting his own stamp on the program. He’s a serious journalist and, frankly, I wish he was not nearly as good as he is.”
ABC officials are equally complimentary. “Brian had big shoes to fill, and I think he’s done it with dignity and grace and success,” said Jon Banner, executive producer of “World News Tonight.”
Brokaw, whom Williams consults with regularly, said his successor has grown “more comfortable, I think, every month.
“In fact, at this point, people are beginning to wonder, ‘What was the name of that guy that was there before?’ ” added the longtime broadcaster, who still produces documentaries for NBC.
Yet for all Williams’ self-confidence, all of the favorable reviews and strong ratings, it sometimes seems as if he’s still trying to prove he’s seasoned enough for the job.
During a lunchtime hosting gig last week at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he moderated an appearance by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the NBC anchor posed a question about the Iraqi insurgency by first detailing one of his visits to the country.
“I guess the combat was three days underway when the helicopter I was flying on was shot at,” he told the audience.
In the last year, Williams has gone to lengths to demonstrate his reporting chops -- traveling to Banda Aceh after the Southeast Asian tsunami, to Rome to document Pope John Paul II’s final days, and to Baghdad and Mosul for the Iraqi elections. But he’s garnered the most attention for his coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Hunkered down in the New Orleans Superdome when the storm hit, he was one of the first to report on the squalor there -- and one of the first to press federal officials on-air about their slow response to the devastation.
“It was an absolute defining moment for him,” said Jeff Alan, author of “Anchoring America: The Changing Face of Network News.” “Before that, I think most people looked at him as a polished news reader.”
The story also showcased Williams’ technological prowess. When fierce winds tore off pieces of the Superdome’s roof, he snapped a picture with his cellphone camera, which was quickly posted on MSNBC.com and shown on the network. That Williams has led efforts to expand the newscast’s technological reach is seen as ironic by those who know him well.
“He was a guy who had dust accumulating on his computer a couple years ago,” said NBC News President Steve Capus, a longtime friend, who said the anchor frequently mentions websites he’s learned about from his teenage children.
Williams is quick to note that his interaction with the audience doesn’t shape the lineup of the evening news. But it does give him a chance to explain decisions -- and sometimes apologize for them. In this week’s postings, he answered a spate of e-mails complaining that NBC was devoting too much time to New Orleans at the expense of the rest of the Gulf Coast region and detailed the challenges of arranging an interview with New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin.
Still, he harbors some skepticism about the burgeoning passion for new technology.
Back in the newsroom, Williams told the Bard College students about how he recently ran into a friend in the hall listening to a podcast of a radio program on his iPod.
“He was just going on and on about the amazing portability of this thing,” he recalled. “He said, ‘Of course, we know the ultimate is coming. We’re just a few months away from Apple coming out with an iPod that receives live broadcast transmissions.’
“And I said, ‘Well, do you think they’ll call that a radio?’ ”