Programming

Brian Williams: Leno Yes, Twitter No

Nightly News anchor talks ratings, Diane and his latest gig 10/19/2009 11:23:00 AM Eastern

As he prepares to host the Oct. 20 Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame gala at New York's Waldorf-Astoria, NBC's Brian Williams does so from a position of strength. Nightly News With Brian Williams has been the most-watched evening newscast for 51 of the last 52 weeks (as of the week ending Oct. 11), and has topped ABC's World News With Charles Gibson for 46 consecutive weeks in the target 25-54 demographic. Season to date, Nightly is the only newscast to show an uptick, not insignificant at a time when broadcast television in general is shedding viewers.

Williams talks to B&C Programming Editor Marisa Guthrie about the new-media onslaught, soon-to-be evening news competitor Diane Sawyer and why he has resisted joining the Twitterati.

To what do you attribute Nightly's ratings success?

How about that? I have to say reflexively and defensively it's probably the most under-covered story in our industry. But I'm probably the least-equipped person to answer why we are up year-to-date, why we're up over two years ago, because all trends are to the contrary. I think we have the best people. I think we will out-gun you; we will come at you and just try to beat you with hard work. We don't do it for ratings; it's a very nice byproduct to be told, after working as hard as we do, that more people watch what we do. It's really nice.

Come January, you'll have a new anchor to compete with at ABC.

Who is that? I hadn't heard.

Her name is Diane Sawyer, she's kind of new. Are you looking forward to being the only evening anchor in a necktie?

We might go all [Blake] Edwards and [Julie] Andrews. You don't know, that whole necktie thing [for women] might come back. Our print colleagues have had a lot of fun. But the truth is, it's too close an industry not to be friends. I have always said that. Everybody knows everybody. And everyone has worked in every shop.

So it's a privilege, as someone who can't believe my own good fortune. These are great jobs to have. Diane is a heck of a competitor, a true TV star, ya know? She is. And she's as big a name as we have in the industry, and so we'll do nothing different.

We're gonna do what we do every day—we're gonna work hard. We're in a highly subjective business and it's all in the eye of the beholder, the viewer. We'll keep doing our best work and hopefully the most people will see our daily efforts.

I'm sure you plan on staying at Nightly for a long time. Do you ever envision yourself anchoring the nightly news on the Web instead of a broadcast?

No, no. Also on the Web? Sure. Do I envision myself anchoring on watch faces, BlackBerrys, PDAs, anything? Yes, but in addition to the network platform. I can't see making the other argument because I've seen nights in the recent past where we've topped 10 million viewers. Where are you going to get that volume of Americans in this atmosphere?

You're an avid blogger, but you're not on Twitter. Why not?

The details of my own life bore me, so I cannot imagine anyone expressing interest in them. My blog has so far proved to be enough of an outlet for me.

A few of your colleagues have gotten themselves in trouble by tweeting before they think. Has that given you pause?

No. We had a case in point [recently] with Obama's statement after the Nobel Prize, and a friend was printing out and handing me column after column and blog after blog about it. And I couldn't help myself; I said I wonder if someone will actually think about it and write a thoughtful piece about it. And here's George Packer's blog from The New Yorker. I was just going to read some of these: John Dickerson, Glenn Kessler, Peggy Noonan. Everybody's like, “Here's what I think of it!”

And I'm not in that big a hurry. There is nothing I need to say so urgently. If I feel the need for Twitter, if I think it will satisfy something and fill a national yearning, I'll start doing it.

OK, we'll just have to wait for the national yearning, then. According to a recent Pew survey, the public's assessment of the accuracy of news is at its lowest point in two decades. What do you think about that? Is it a fair assessment?

I would only ask that you define for me what news they're critiquing. I'd like to go back at them and hand them a copy of The New York Times or Broadcasting & Cable or the daily output of The Associated Press and say, what's wrong with this?

Our major daily papers with bureaus domestically and overseas—as long as it's an educated consumer, as long as you know what you're getting, they'll take you places you've never dreamed of going. Take The New York Times; everyone says of course it's the liberal house organ. Well, knowing that, knowing that they may have a bent, a viewpoint, a worldview, still you're going to be transported to places that you never dreamed of visiting.

Have standards changed? Yes. Has cable changed the game? Yes. Has the news cycle shrunk? You betcha. But last night's broadcast, tonight's broadcast, I'll put up against anybody's. I'll put whatever we end up putting on the air against anybody's review of holding a mirror up to our country.

We still do what we do very well. We still spend a fortune to cover news. I can pick up the phone right now and call the galley or the kitchen in our Baghdad [bureau] and order up a story for tonight, and camera crews will get dispatched and that's incredible. And really expensive; the meter is running, but it's what we do. So we pay the cost.

Many observers say that we've reached a new low in civility in this country. Do you agree with the pundit-ocracy that the media have contributed to that?

It's a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing when you get into where it started and what's perpetuating it. But I know that the language and the discourse in my country are completely alien to what I grew up with. What my kids know and are aware of as college students today, what they knew and were aware of as young teenagers, are a world apart from the America I grew up with. We have changed. We are a coarser society. We don't wait; we attack, we pounce.

Speaking of pouncing, the Obama administration has instituted an aggressive media strategy of hitting back at detractors, namely Fox News. Do you think that's a smart strategy?

Everyone in public life gets the chance to decide whether to hit back. And there's one school of thought that in this culture, you don't get any attention unless you make as much noise as your enemies are making. So luckily we just get to call balls and strikes.

Jay Leno announced that you'll be a special “contributor” on his program. He also promised that you will “be really funny.” So can you tell us what exactly you'll be doing on the show, and can you offer assurances that you will in fact be “really funny”?

While no specific on-air role has been worked out, I was waiting for the show to get established before I took a chance at ruining the franchise.

November