Brian Williams, anchor and managing editor of NBC's Nightly News, sat down for a free-wheeling discussion with B&C's Ben Grossman at the B&C/Multichannel News annual OnScreen Media Summit that included the anchor's thoughts on Jon Stewart's place in the news media pantheon, consumers changing consumption habits and the impending departure of NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker at the completing of the Comcast merger.
Commenting on President Obama's Daily Show interview with Stewart on Wednesday, Williams observed that the President's appearance "solidified Jon Stewart's position" as an industry leader.
"I'm already on record in calling Jon a necessary other branch of government," said Williams. "I think he keeps them honest. For a long time he was a one-man political media force. We all take our lumps from him. I enjoy going on [The Daily Show]. We have a blast together. I think he serves a purpose. What does it say about the [wider] media world? I think it says what we already know, and that is our media world is changing."
Despite the collective loss of audience share of the broadcast evening newscasts, Williams asserted that in many ways, the viewers who are watching may be more engaged.
"It used to be people would say to me, we watch you every night," said Williams. "Now it's we TiVo you every night."
That means, he continued, viewers are taking an "affirmative step to see you more than just the passivity of watching. I try to thank them forcefully because it's about the nicest thing you can say to someone in my line of work; we make the effort to record you every single night."
Williams noted that Zucker's departure from NBC Universal, where Zucker began as a researcher more than 20 years ago, will mark a major shift at the news division.
"It will be a time of big change. [Zucker] was a news division guy. We've always kind of known that our boss is one of us. To listen to [Comcast], NBC News is one of the big reasons they are becoming us and we are becoming them. There's always a bit of trepidation when there is a new owner. But it's par to life," he said.
Asked for his opinion about NPR's decision to fire Juan Williams, the NBC anchor demurred: "I'll leave it to everybody else to fuss and fight about the decision," he said, adding that he has been friends with Juan Williams 30 years.
"The First Amendment gives him the right to say pretty much anything he wants. But he doesn't have the right to be employed by NPR," he said.
Williams also called the controversy around News Corp.'s donation to the Republican Governors Association a bit of tempest in a teapot.
"I think this is a business of glass houses," he said. "There are very very few big entities who don't try to make their way a little easier by hiring lobbying firms and donating to political campaigns. That's part of the way the world works."
But he stressed that there should be a fire wall when it comes to news coverage.
"The line is between political activity and on air coverage," he said.
Williams also discussed the network's upcoming election coverage, which the news division announced would stretch into the late-night hours pre-empting The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
"We live for it," he said. "I will just be getting my second win around 2 a.m. I really think vis-à-vis where the media are today, I don't think you're going to match the tonnage that we're going to bring to this story."