Brian Williams Nudges NBC to The Top With A Light Touch

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:

"I'm up there with my chisel day after day. Someone who hasn't seen me in a while comes to South Dakota and says, 'You've totally refurbished Jefferson's nose, it's beautiful.' If the result of our chiseling is positive, that's great. We've got two very good chiselers chasing us."

But Wallace, who took the job a year ago, had her own tool kit. She streamlined the opening (which had included the names of every previous anchor dating back to John Cameron Swayze) for a simple shot of Williams billboarding the night's top stories (followed by Michael Douglas voicing the intro). And she carved out time for Williams to chat with his correspondents instead of just tossing to taped reports.

"I'm always trying to slow the program down a little bit because it allows Brian to do more of his own writing, so we're not rushing to tell you 40 things at once," she says.

That, says Capus, a former "Nightly News" producer, can be "a tricky proposition. We've tried to allow for Brian's fingerprints to show up more on the broadcast. The let-Brian-be-Brian conversation is one we often have."

But which Brian? The serious, somewhat formal presence on the evening news? The genial debate moderator? The guy who played a hunky Joisey fireman on "SNL"?

The change is most visible in his lighter items, such as one on the reopening of Washington's Old Soldiers' Home (where, the anchor noted, Lincoln "even mapped out the Civil War in the parlor") and Polaroid ending production of instant film ("Let's not forget waving the still-wet picture back and forth").

When William F. Buckley Jr. died, Williams told viewers: "He had an ego as expansive as his intellect, and he loved a lot of things, chief among them the Republican Party, the Catholic Church, controversy, sailing, debating, playing the harpsichord and peanut butter, one of many areas where he considered himself an expert." Williams knew this because they discovered their shared passion when he visited the commentator's Connecticut home and later received a case of Buckley's favorite brand.

Still, says Williams, "some nights it's a straight recitation [of news], because there's no wiggle room between the must-run stories." He is known for his round-the-clock schedule, often peppering his staff with e-mails at 1 a.m.

Williams also tries to connect with an online audience through his daily blog. When the British media were found to have suppressed news of Prince Harry's mission to Afghanistan, Williams recalled withholding military information during a trip to Iraq. When Fidel Castro stepped down, he reflected on his last visit to Cuba.

For the February sweeps, Williams averaged 9.5 million viewers to Gibson's 9.3 million; Couric trailed with just under 7 million. Not that anyone at NBC has broken out the bubbly. Williams says he learned of the win when he read the company press release. "We're all superstitious people," Wallace says of the lack of celebration.

A key consolation prize for ABC is that "World News" has won the last two sweeps among viewers 25 to 54, the demographic most prized by advertisers.

"You think the presidential race is competitive?" says Jon Banner, executive producer of "World News." "I think the evening news is just as competitive. We've been trading wins back and forth, especially in the key demographic. This is a tie ballgame. Our political coverage is top-notch, and Charlie is having a great time."

Gibson, who turned 65 yesterday, mused about the prospect of retirement last week with Dallas television critic Ed Bark: "I think I'll know when the time comes. You don't want to stay as long as [David] Brinkley did. David stayed too long. He had a great career, and you've got to know when it's time to leave."

Pundit's Court

Dan Abrams, attorney and talk show host, is appointing himself judge and jury.

The MSNBC commentator is renaming his program "Verdict," and while guests can offer evidence, he will be passing judgment on political and legal issues by picking winners and losers, deciding right from wrong and issuing a nightly scorecard.

"When a news show tries to do something offbeat, there's a sense that it's gimmicky," Abrams says. "It's supposed to be fun. The media make everything two-sided, even when it's not. Rather than saying 'one side says this, the other side says that,' it's helpful for viewers to know where I'm coming from."

"Live With Dan Abrams," which trails "Hannity & Colmes" and "Larry King Live" in the ratings at 9 p.m., will rebrand itself next week, introducing cartoon-style graphics to underscore its new identity. "We're kind of taking a page from the world of entertainment," he says.

Abrams says his media critiques carry "a modicum of credibility" because of his 15-month stint as MSNBC's general manager, which ended last fall. He already does a "Beat the Press" segment that tends to focus on his network's rivals, although he has mocked himself on occasion. "I try not to do gotcha stuff," he says.

New segments will include "Why America Hates Washington," in keeping with Abrams's increasingly populist tone. "I think it fits who I am," he says. "I'm a lawyer and I'm not a Washington insider."

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