It's not easy being a traditional TV newsman in a new-media world. But Brian Williams, who grew up worshipping Walter Cronkite, remains the most watched anchor as NBC Nightly News averages 8 million viewers each night. He talked with TV Guide Magazine about how he's navigating the changing news landscape.
TV Guide Magazine: CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves recently said everybody knows the news by the time it airs on the network evening news. Is he wrong?
Williams: Everybody isn't with Richard Engel and they can't see what he saw in Afghanistan. Everybody isn't with Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie at the White House. Nobody knows what Andrea Mitchell has for tonight. Everyone has at their disposal the means to become media on the Web. That's a big change. I get it. But there is a big difference in the content you get from the brand names — the people who do this for a living.
TV Guide Magazine: Last season, the evening newscasts lost more than 700,000 viewers. How do you stop that?
Williams: Life is more jam-packed at 5:30 or 6:30 than it was when we were kids generations ago. Time-shifting is the remedy.
TV Guide Magazine: Is that why you've done a promo that tells viewers to DVR the program?
Williams: That was my idea. I've been trying to get us to inhabit the same world in our promos as we do in our homes. It took a little doing.
TV Guide Magazine: Does MSNBC's new partisan positioning pose a problem for you?
Williams: No. Cable in prime time becomes a different animal. It's a time for attitude and personality. That's not what I do for a living, but it doesn't mean I can't work 100 yards away from people who do. We've never had savvier viewers. People know that what I do for a living is NBC Nightly News. They know that what Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow do is different. We all have a different niche.
TV Guide Magazine: Can the evening newscasts at CBS or ABC survive without a cable partner?
Williams: Sure. They just have to say they're going to do it. The corporate parents have to decide it's a priority, [that] there's a public service in it.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you think Katie Couric will return to NBC News?
Williams: I have no idea. I have lived long enough to know absolutely anything can happen, especially in our industry.
TV Guide Magazine: How have you managed to appear on NBC comedy shows without damaging your stature as a journalist?
Williams: NBC News president Steve Capus wanted to make sure that when I hosted Saturday Night Live, I wouldn't do a sketch that would blow up 27 years of earned credibility. Ditto when Tina Fey calls me for 30 Rock. Often her first try with a suggested cameo is in a color I don't work in. I return it and respectfully say, "Soften this." Sometimes we go back two or three times before we settle on something.
TV Guide Magazine: You lost your dad this past year. Were you able to talk with him about what you've achieved and how he'd influenced you?
Williams: He had a satisfying feeling all his life of how he contributed to this. It was he who insisted that dinner not be served until Cronkite was over. He lived until 93, and his boy, 51, has achieved his dream in life. There wasn't a soul in his assisted living facility on the Jersey Shore who didn't know within 20 seconds of entering the building that Brian Williams' father was a resident.
TV Guide Magazine: I bet it made him popular with the women there.
Williams: Oh, yeah. He did pretty well.
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