Brian Williams Nudges NBC to The Top With A Light Touch

Williams with Jay Leno on
Williams with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" in January and playing a firefighter in a skit late last year on "Saturday Night Live." His "Nightly News" program has risen in the ratings, winning the February sweeps. (By Paul Drinkwater -- Nbc)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 10, 2008

It was shortly after midnight after Tuesday's elections when Brian Williams popped up on MSNBC and offered one explanation for Hillary Clinton's big wins in Ohio and Texas.

"I think 'Saturday Night Live' will come up as a factor," he said of the former first lady's appearance on the show. Tina Fey's comedic endorsement of Clinton, he said, came "when she needed the bump."

Williams himself has gotten quite the bump since guest-hosting the show four months ago, not to mention his recent appearances with Jon Stewart and Jay Leno and his role in moderating five presidential debates, including the last face-off between Clinton and Barack Obama.

After Charlie Gibson knocked Williams out of first place for much of 2007, "NBC Nightly News" won the February sweeps last week, after winning the sweeps ratings period in November as well. Politics may play to NBC's strength, with its all-star roster of Tim Russert, David Gregory and Andrea Mitchell. They and others are also featured on the network's cable channel, where Williams hosted daytime coverage twice last week.

"People want to watch the news with someone you could go to dinner with," says Alexandra Wallace, executive producer of "Nightly News." "He's a normal guy." And the "SNL" stint, she says, helped show off his comedic side.

Williams, 48, says he is "enormously glad" he overcame his initial doubts that the gig might damage his reputation. "I had a lot of fun," he says. "I did not think it would translate, that there would be an advantage in my day job. It never dawned on me."

Precisely why people choose one newscast over another is far from an exact science. Habit, lead-in audiences and strength of a network's affiliate stations all play a role. Katie Couric's move from "Today" to the CBS anchor chair was hugely publicized, but she has struggled since then.

Unlike Williams, his anchor rivals lack a cable outlet. Couric lost her one shot at moderating a presidential debate because of the writers' strike, while Gibson has moderated once, quizzing both parties' candidates in January.

Williams succeeded Tom Brokaw after the 2004 election -- a move that had been announced 2 1/2 years earlier -- and firmly established himself on the first-place broadcast, especially after his award-winning coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

Gibson, who came off the bench in 2006 after Bob Woodruff was injured in Iraq and Elizabeth Vargas got pregnant, frequently finished first last year, including for 12 straight weeks. Viewers gravitated toward his relaxed, avuncular style. It was a frustrating period at 30 Rock.

"I don't think anyone freaked out around here," says NBC News President Steve Capus. "But those weeks we weren't on top, we were all saying we've got to buckle down."

"I'm a competitive animal -- I'd rather be first," Williams says. He says he had "no grand scheme" to recapture the lead and likens himself to a stonemason on Mount Rushmore:

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