'Nightly News' Names New Producer

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Alexandra Wallace, an NBC News vice president, was named yesterday as executive producer of the network's evening newscast just as the program finds itself in a ratings dogfight.

"I miss being in a control room," said Wallace, a former producer of "Today," "Weekend Today," CBS's "Early Show" and the "CBS Evening News." "I got into this business because I'm a news junkie and have missed having a purely news job."

Wallace's appointment comes as "NBC Nightly News" finds itself on the defensive for the first time, with Brian Williams having lost the February sweeps to Charlie Gibson at ABC's "World News." Williams had maintained a tight grip on first place since succeeding Tom Brokaw in December 2004.

"There are three good shows out there," said Wallace, including the third-place CBS broadcast anchored by Katie Couric. "It is a tight race right now. But I'm very optimistic about our show, and in the months to come, we will get back to a solid front-running position."

Jon Banner, executive producer of "World News," said that "it's only one sweeps period and we have a lot of work to do." But he said the recent success has great meaning for a news division staggered over the last two years by the death of Peter Jennings and Bob Woodruff's injury in Iraq.

"It's taken some time for people to realize that Charlie is the anchor of 'World News,' " Banner said. He said the program had benefited from reports by Diane Sawyer in Iran and Syria and Martha Raddatz in Iraq, and that Gibson's approach is "for him to be the conductor but to get out of the way and allow the reporters to shine. . . . He's taken ownership of the broadcast."

Wallace, 41, succeeds John Reiss, who kept "Nightly News" in first place but who developed stylistic differences with Williams. Reiss asked for a reassignment in December.

In the four-week February sweeps, "World News" averaged 9.69 million viewers, just ahead of "Nightly News" with 9.65 million. The CBS newscast averaged 7.6 million.

NBC executives say ABC was boosted by an advantage in lead-in audience over "Nightly News" that nearly tripled from January to February. Banner, however, called that an "excuse." Since January, ABC's newscast is up 5 percent over a year earlier, compared with drops of 3 percent at NBC and 5 percent at CBS.

Wallace said she plans no "drastic changes" at the newscast. Asked whether Williams, an occasional "Daily Show" guest, should inject more of himself into the program, she said: "I think Brian is the best at what he does. He has an amazing personality outside of here. Having said that, it's a nightly news show. We're not doing the Stephen Colbert show."

A mother of two children, Wallace is the first woman to run one of the evening newscasts in a decade. The self-described "news gal" said that gives her a different perspective but would have a limited impact on the program's mix. When the vacancy loomed, Wallace says, she and NBC News President Steve Capus "decided together that I'd be the best person for the job."

All the evening newscasts are using high-profile series in an effort to hook viewers. Couric has launched "American Spirit," a look at local solutions to problems that could have national implications. Williams recently profiled his 89-year-old father in a series in which NBC stars examined the problems of caring for their aging parents, and carried reports from Iraq on "Wounds of War." Gibson has aired "Test of Faith," about religious belief during times of crisis, and "Mean Streets," an examination of gangs in America.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company