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NBC prepares for Brokaw transition

Brian Williams looks forward to hitting the road before assuming anchor post.

November 21, 2003|Verne Gay | Newsday

NEW YORK — Brian Williams is calling from somewhere in the Garden State, and he sounds genuinely alert. Remarkable, considering this schedule: on the road most of the time, and when not reporting on a hurricane or the pope, bouncing back and forth between Secaucus, N.J., where CNBC's "The News With Brian Williams" is produced, and Manhattan, where his show-in-waiting, "NBC Nightly News," originates.

Makes one wonder whether Tom Brokaw's heir apparent would trade it all in for just a warm bed and one good night's sleep. But weary? "I joke that you don't want to be the person standing between me and the international desk at JFK when something happens," he says. "This is my tonic."

Fine, Brian, but enough is enough, and even your employer thinks so. Sometime this January, NBC News will pull him off "The News," his well-regarded program that began on MSNBC seven years ago, and officially launch the most important transition in network TV news of the last 20 years.

For Williams, that means no more Secaucus, but it does mean everywhere else. He will cover the primaries, conventions, the summer Olympics, elections and numerous stories in between for his "Assignment America" series on "Nightly."

Then, on a Monday night sometime after the election (no exact date yet), Williams becomes the anchor of "Nightly."

It all seems so simple, precise and -- after all these years of anchor-in-waiting status -- preordained. But do not be fooled. NBC News is about to attempt something that has never been done before: a truly flawless network anchor transition.

"There's no question in my mind that Brian is the right guy for this job," says Neal Shapiro, NBC News president. "But we're realistic. These changes haven't happened in 20 years, and we have to do our best to make this the smoothest transition."

Transitions, by nature and reputation, are messy and fraught with peril. And, yes, second-guessing too.

For Williams, that already has begun. Some -- although apparently none inside NBC -- have pointed to his low numbers on "The News" (about 400,000 viewers per night), which NBC News executives almost reflexively brush off by noting that "The News" is still the most-viewed program on CNBC's underwatched prime-time schedule, and that ratings are solid each time he fills in on "Nightly."

"I'm sure there are people at NBC who would have preferred that he received higher ratings [on 'The News'], but I haven't found or heard anyone going around saying, 'Uh-oh, we made a mistake,' " says Joseph Angotti, a veteran NBC News executive who is now chair of the broadcast program at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He calls the strategy to date "a wise one."

Jerry Nachman, MSNBC's editor in chief, who has known Williams since his days as a reporter at WCBS-TV in New York, says, "A guy who comes from Columbus to Yankee Stadium isn't expected to bring an audience with him, but he is expected to bring the tools with him."

He adds that "The News" is "a cable thing and the other is the flagship, and when you get to the flagship, it's like becoming president -- you become enveloped [and] it all depends on what you do once you get there."

NBC News, naturally, has conducted a vast amount of audience research on Williams and -- the good news -- it is "positive," says Shapiro, which means that people who have seen him, like him.

Here's the rub. "People have to get to know him," says Shapiro. "We take for granted that we know these guys, and even though Brian has had a lot of exposure, he is still a relative newcomer" for many viewers.

Which is a key reason behind January's big move. Williams' work on CNBC helped him build his already considerable skills -- and reputation -- as NBC's anchor-in-waiting, but did nothing for his national profile.

Worse, the show took time away from "Nightly," where viewers (about 10 million a night) could get to know him well.

"I need to go back home again," says Williams bluntly. "I was hired a decade ago as a traveling national correspondent, and this is what I do."

Meanwhile, his new role on "Nightly" also could erase an old and especially dogged criticism: that Williams hasn't sufficiently built his chops as a globetrotting reporter.

"I intend to be on the road a lot," he says. "My kids are too young to remember when I traveled for 'Nightly' [as chief White House correspondent] and I was gone all the time because Bill Clinton treated Air Force One like we'd treat the family minivan. So this is back to the future for me."

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