Riding an Amtrak train from Washington, D.C., to New York last week, Brian Williams gets the greetings and nods of recognition from passengers expected for someone who has spent 10 years in the anchor chair at “NBC Nightly News.”
Yet half of those folks, he points out, will tell him they’re fans of “slow-jamming the news,” an occasional bit on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” Williams recites news copy while the late night show’s house band, the Roots, plays a Quiet Storm-style groove underneath him.
It’s how Williams celebrated the Dec. 2 anniversary of taking over the evening newscast in 2004 and just one of many freewheeling, engaging appearances he’s made over the years on shows including “30 Rock,” “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” There are enough of them to make it seem as though a comic’s soul is trapped inside that newsman body, waiting for the chance to bust out.
But Williams — the Jersey boy who grew up wanting to be Walter Cronkite — remains true to the news anchor desk.
NBC News is expected to announce Monday that he has signed a new contract. Though Williams will acknowledge only that it’s a long-term deal, insiders at the network say it will keep him at the helm of the “NBC Nightly News” for at least five more years. He didn’t disclose his financial compensation, but it’s said to be more than $10 million a year.
“It’s probably time I admit that I am a one-trick pony,” the 55-year-old Williams said from his Rockefeller Center office in New York this past weekend. “I am, I think, designed and put on this Earth to do what I’m doing now — and that is to eat, sleep and breathe nonfiction and the news going on in the world. And then at 6:30 every night I get to deliver it, and I get to hear from the audience, and I get to know them.”
With respect to the executives at NBC parent Comcast Corp. and the news division, Williams said the deal was akin to “reaffirming your vows.”
That includes NBC News President Deborah Turness — a British TV executive brought in by Comcast with a mandate to strengthen the division’s digital operation. New York tabloid gossip pages have said NBC veterans such as Williams were unhappy with Turness. Williams’ response is: “Read everything into this announcement where it pertains to stability, the future and our management team and nothing into the garbage that’s been in the paper from since discredited sources.”
Williams’ broadcast is averaging 9.05 million viewers a night in the 2014-15 TV season, according to Nielsen, the best start it’s had in nine years. On many nights, he attracts more viewers than any of NBC’s prime-time shows. “NBC Nightly News” has logged 273 consecutive weekly ratings wins against the other network evening newscasts.
But the broadcast is feeling competitive heat.
“ABC World News Tonight With David Muir” is up 8% in viewers compared with last season. Muir, who succeeded Diane Sawyer in September, is easy on the eyes, and his broadcast’s high volume of bite-size stories has helped it top Williams among the key audience of 25- to 54-year-old viewers that advertisers target.
Former NBC News President Steve Capus, an innovative producer familiar with the moves of his old shop, took over the third-place broadcast, “CBS Evening News With Scott Pelley,” last summer. He’s attacking “NBC Nightly News” from the opposite side with longer pieces on major news stories and seeing slight ratings gains as well.
Williams is careful not to overreact to what his counterparts are doing. “I kind of choose the Eisenhower formula,” he said. “He wrote two letters before D-day. If it failed, it was on him. If it succeeded, it was because of the team. That’s what I believe. And I can’t do much beyond respect my competition and watch them. I can only make changes around the margins. We’re going to do the news Monday night that we have to do.”
Turness takes a longer view about how to expand Williams’ audience. “When you ask ‘Nightly News’ viewers why they watch the show, their response always begins with the word ‘he,’” she said, referring to the anchor. Going forward, Turness wants Williams to have more of a presence on NBC News’ digital platforms where he can talk about topics in a more relaxed, conversational style.
One model would be the recent hour of midterm election results Williams anchored on NBCNews.com after the coverage that aired in prime time on the network. During that Web-only hour, Williams said he just tried to replicate the atmosphere of the midterm prep work he did with “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd while adding guests that included former Obama White House advisor David Axelrod.
“I considered it merely an extension of the discussion Chuck and I started the night before at my place over Domino’s pizza and ‘Monday Night Football,’” Williams said. “Axelrod said it was the best time he ever had on television.”
Williams is already a YouTube favorite thanks to a series of “Tonight Show” videos that repurpose archival footage of the anchor with laser-like precision to create versions of hip-hop classics such as “Rapper’s Delight” and “Gin and Juice.” His career and necktie closet flash before him in the videos. “For me it’s two minutes of [post-traumatic stress disorder],” he said. “It’s kind of the perfect feature for this age.”
But he is ready to broaden his digital presence in the framework of NBC News. “No one will have to twist my arm,” he said.
When not on the air or online, Williams enjoys the blossoming TV careers of his children. While his daughter Allison performed as the lead in NBC’s Dec. 4 live production of “Peter Pan,” Williams watched in her trailer outside the soundstage at Grumman Studios in Bethpage, N.Y.
“My technical friends at NBC News tricked out her trailer with a large flat-screen bigger than my first apartment,” he recalled. “It was me, my wife, Jane, our son, Allison’s fiancé and my son’s girlfriend. We didn’t move for three hours. It was an emotional night. We are still walking on air.”
Two days earlier, there was another Williams family landmark as son Doug made his debut as an anchor on SNY, a regional sports network that broadcasts in a street-level studio just across from NBC’s Rockefeller Center headquarters.
“I’m not a helicopter parent,” said Williams. “But that I can lean back slightly in my chair and look out and see my boy in the lights of the studio — it’s kind of like watching your daughter as Peter Pan. Life’s been very good to my wife and me.”