NBC news anchor Brian Williams. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)
Brian Williams will be moonlighting Mondays this fall, but at least he won't have a long commute to his second job. Just a few steps, in fact.
On Monday, NBC will premiere the live newsmagazine "Rock Center With Brian Williams," with the anchor of the No. 1-rated "NBC Nightly News" serving as host. Viewers might find the setting familiar: Both programs will originate from different corners of the same space, Studio 3B in the network's Rockefeller Center headquarters in New York.
Long-struggling NBC is angling to make "Rock Center" the first successful launch of a prime-time broadcast newsmagazine in 20 years. And it has found an energetic evangelist in the 52-year-old anchor, a proudly old-school newshound who sees the public as increasingly weary of the shouting matches on cable news and therefore hungry for quality long-form TV journalism.
"People are coming back to known faces, brand names, controlled environments," Williams said by phone last week. "I'm not going to yell at you, and you're not going to learn my opinion — nor do you care.... I think there absolutely is a market for more stories, well told."
Whether that's true or merely wishful thinking might be decided as early as Tuesday morning, when the first ratings for "Rock Center" come out. As of late last week, the first episode — opening, perhaps inauspiciously, on Halloween night — was scheduled to include taped pieces on the resistance movement in Syria and on Chinese women who pay to come to the U.S. to have children and then return with American citizenship.
No matter what happens, Williams and his team know they face long odds.
Although newsmagazines aren't nearly as popular or ubiquitous as during their 1980s heyday, "Rock Center" will have competition. As it nears its 45th anniversary, CBS' "60 Minutes" still pulls down impressive ratings on Sunday nights. ABC News airs "Primetime" as specials; NBC's own "Dateline" and CBS' "48 Hours" have evolved into true-crime outlets, spitting out the kind of lurid tabloid tales that Williams has said "Rock Center" will avoid.
NBC, for its part, has had trouble launching just about any prime-time show lately. "Rock Center" is replacing "The Playboy Club," a '60s drama that endured three low-rated episodes before executives yanked it from the 10 p.m. Monday slot. The network brass is already trying to manage expectations in a time period opposite two popular crime dramas, CBS' "Hawaii Five-O" and ABC's "Castle."
"I don't pretend to think that we're gonna move the needle in the ratings when we come out of the gate," said Steve Capus, president of NBC News.
Williams puts it even more bluntly. "I know we're going to get crushed," he said on MSNBC last week.
Some analysts agree. "That the show is tossed in at this point in the season makes it look like NBC is grab-bagging," said Jeffrey McCall, a media studies professor at DePauw University, adding that the additions of former "Nightline" host Ted Koppel and other veteran journalists have raised expectations of a high-quality program.
Even so, "This show will likely struggle to find viewers and its place in broadcast journalism," McCall predicted. "I think NBC will have to be patient."
That's exactly what his bosses have promised to be, Williams says.
The anchor had long wanted to do a newsmagazine — his desk drawers are crammed with a backlog of story ideas scribbled on paper scraps, he says. But "Rock Center" got off the ground when the cable giant Comcast officially took over NBC this year. Starting a newsmagazine was one of the first ideas from Steve Burke, a Comcast veteran and newly tapped chief executive of NBC Universal.
"He was hours into his new job," Capus said of Burke. "He saw a need, an opening that he thought we could fill — that the audience had a desire for a quality newsmagazine."
At the heart of it all is Williams, who paid his dues at local TV outlets — he and Capus slaved away together at a Philadelphia station in the 1980s — before being snatched up by NBC as a reporter in 1993. A savvy corporate politician as well as devoted student of TV news, he rose through the ranks under the tutelage of his mentor, former "Nightly News" anchor Tom Brokaw, finally ascending to anchor in 2004.
Viewers seem to admire Williams' low-key style and all-American good looks, although people who know him often say that "Nightly News" fails to capture his eclectic sensibilities as well as his dry sense of humor (the latter trait displayed on his 2007 stint hosting "Saturday Night Live" as well as appearances on "The Daily Show" and "30 Rock").
"Rock Center" has a chance to rectify that. "I hope the program feels like Brian's playlist," said Rome Hartman, an indefatigable former "60 Minutes" producer hired to oversee the new show.