NBC's Brian Williams Succeeds Playing it Straight and For Laughs
Yes, the anchor of NBC "Nightly News" has a sense of humor that occasionally bubbles up, coming after the rundown of solemn subjects when lighter fare begins.
Take Tuesday as he offered an appreciation of the recently deceased Hubert Schlafly, the inventor of the telemprompter. The machine made careers after debuting in 1950 with soap operas. Then, presidents picked it up and news anchors followed.
Williams included. Subtly poking fun at himself, he said: "The teleprompter makes it possible for someone as dumb as a box of rocks to seem well-spoken or informed."
Come, now. Williams is a bit smarter than a collection of worthless minerals.
Look no further than his moonlighting comedy, where other venues give him room to display more than some quick-hitters. As it might in an appreciation of Chris Rock, New York magazine has a lengthy piece this week breaking down his timing, delivery skills and versatility.
A veteran guest on Conan O'Brien's first NBC show, Williams has hosted Saturday Night Live and appeared on 30 Rock as himself (sort of). The latter has one of the hottest comedic-types raving.
"He has that kind of timing that you have to have, that you can't learn," Tina Fey told New York.
Williams is fortunate to have other gigs, but he won't need to quit his day job anytime soon. Evening newscasts continue to decline in viewership, but aren't going anywhere.
Even at CBS, where save "60 Minutes," news has less importance, CEO Leslie Moonves recently summed it up, saying that to be a broadcast network, being in the news business is a requirement. At NBC, news is more crucial, if only as a team player with MSNBC.
A sizable population of course is more informed than ever with the Web a constant presence all day. Yet, for many others, the evening news still offers a compelling summary. The bulk seem to feel Williams does it best.
For now at least, there are more than 9 million of them, which is more than a bunch of well-known prime-time shows. (ABC's Diane Sawyer gets about 8 million viewers.) Williams also does better than "20/20" in prime time in the key news 25-to-54 demographic.
The NBC anchor has found a way to remain relevant: for the most part, holding to the traditional evening news format. He's hewed to the 22 minutes of McNews.
There are calls for reinvention, but NBC seems to realize the format doesn't allow for much. So, let's try and win the future -- within the box.
If there is a hunger for upheaval, if Fox News has proven there is an audience looking for a break from the established, why has its sister network not launched an evening newscast looking to do that? Fox could get an anchor to give a fair and balanced report and then flip to O'Reilly or Hannity for analysis. (At the moment, getting testy affiliates to go along would be tough, but Fox owns enough stations that clearing a time slot in much of the country would be a cinch.)
There have been quixotic suggestions that Comedy Central's Jon Stewart would inject some energy at 6:30 p.m., but even he would admit that's not his wheelhouse.
At CBS, Katie Couric tried some new things over the past five years, but has admitted she moved a bit too quickly. "In retrospect," she told the New York Times, she would have played it straight and then as viewers "got more comfortable, then I would've started toying with the format and trying new things."
But there's no reason to believe that would have worked. People were already comfortable with her from her sterling run on the "Today" show. To those who say that type of programming lacks gravitas of a nightly news, Tom Brokaw anchored "Today" before ruling 6:30 p.m..
In retrospect, Couric may have been helped if there had been no leaks about a $15 million a year salary. If her proud agents or media advisors were behind the numbers, keeping that under wraps - which admittedly is tough these days - would have been the way to go. Maybe unfairly - especially if gender bias was involved -- the salary became almost reflexively associated with her.
Williams makes a bundle, but how many know how much off-hand? Unlike Couric, he's lucky he's not known as the $X-million-dollar man.
He has succeeded at NBC in part through an ostensible modesty - he gives ample credit to his correspondents - and does not talk down to listeners. He's not the "voice of God," the term Moonves used once to describe the traditional evening anchor role.
(If producers and others who work for Williams find him heavy-handed and arrogant than he's darn effective at hiding it.)
Now, CBS is set to name "60 Minutes" correspondent Scott Pelley as Couric's replacement. Pelley has reporting bona fides and will deliver a clinically sound newscast.
It would be surprising if CBS wants anything different than following the tried-and-true.
After all, Pelley isn't the type who'll have Letterman calling.