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American Journalism Review
The Cable Guy  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   January/February 1997

The Cable Guy   

Fast-rising NBC star Brian Williams' decision to become the anchor on the 24-hour news network MSNBC speaks volumes about how television news is changing.

By Marc Gunther
Marc Gunther, who has covered network news since 1983, is a senior writer at Fortune magazine.     



F EW, IF ANY, ANCHORS OR REPORTERS from the world of cable television have broken out to become major players at the broadcast networks. Those who have traveled the other way--from ABC, CBS or NBC News to cable--did so, as a rule, after their broadcast careers had stalled. So you would think that Brian Williams, the White House correspondent and fast-rising star at NBC News, would have resisted when he was asked to be an anchor on MSNBC, the all-news cable channel launched last summer by Microsoft and NBC.

He didn't. Not for a second. To the contrary, Williams was eager to bet his future on a cable network that, for the moment, has about as much circulation as a newspaper in Hartford or Kansas City. "This was an easy decision," he says. "There was no agonizing whatsoever." Didn't he worry about disappearing into the backwaters of cable and cyberspace? "Should I have?" he asks. "You now have me wondering whether I've made a horrendous mistake."

Not likely. By all accounts, Williams' future is secure--and very bright. Insiders say the grand plan at NBC News still calls for Williams, who is only 37, to become anchor of "NBC Nightly News" if and when 56-year-old Tom Brokaw decides he no longer wants the job. In the meantime, Williams will remain visible to NBC audiences as Brokaw's primary substitute on the "Nightly News" and as anchor of the network's Saturday night news program.

Still, his detour into cable is intriguing, if only because it's evidence of how television news is changing. Indeed, the fact that his road to NBC's top anchor job has taken this turn says something about Brian Williams, about MSNBC and about the future of network news.

For Williams, the decision to commit to MSNBC was easy, in part because he wasn't thinking about audiences or cable distribution when his boss, NBC News President Andrew Lack, urged him to sign on as anchor of MSNBC's prime time newscast. "If my goal were to be on as many TV sets as possible, I'd probably be anchoring 'America's Funniest Home Videos,' " Williams says. Instead, Williams was thinking about two things that matter to him more--his family and the news.

Williams and his wife, Jane, uprooted themselves reluctantly from their home in New Canaan, Connecticut, when he took the White House post in late 1994. He didn't want to leave their bucolic farmhouse, which was Jane's childhood home, and he didn't want to spend time on the road, away from his two young children, two things that the White House job requires. "I twisted his arm, it's fair to say," recalls Lack.

This is one way in which Williams differs from today's generation of network anchors, who as young correspondents would cheerfully pick up and go wherever they were told to for the good of their networks--and their careers. Steven Dickstein, Williams' agent and good friend, says, "Brian is a dad and a husband who makes his living doing what he does. He is no less committed to the quality of his work than anyone, but he knows that the world doesn't begin and end with tomorrow's news." Says Williams: "I've faxed drawings and messages from hotel rooms to home. When you're in the sixth day of an APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation] conference in Manila, it can get tiresome." So the MSNBC job, which is based in New York, was an opportunity to resettle in Connecticut, which the family has done.

It was also a rare opportunity to do serious, in-depth news on television. "I find Jim Lehrer's job as attractive as the so-called Big Three," Williams says. "I measure things by the journalism, as anachronistic as that might sound." Williams knew that on cable, freed from some of the ratings pressures that affect prime time news on the networks, he'd be able to cover stories that matter. Those also happen to be the kinds of stories that most interest him: political news, government news and business stories, among others.

There was one more attraction, of course--the fact that he'd get his own program, even if it was on MSNBC. That's an offer that not many correspondents can refuse. "Look, it's ego food," Williams says. "You get to be anchor and managing editor of an hour in prime time. There's no hiding that aspect of it."

Says NBC's Lack: "If you're managing editor of your own program, whether five people or 5 million see it, if it's yours, it's special. It's 'The News with Brian Williams.' His name's on the marquee."

Williams and MSNBC are a perfect match, says Lack. Putting a well-known correspondent on the cable network was a signal to people inside and out of NBC News that MSNBC would not be populated by second-stringers, Lack says. And the experience anchoring and managing his own program is just what Williams needs. "I take my responsibility in terms of managing his career with great pleasure and seriousness," Lack says. "He's an important guy to me."

MSNBC, meanwhile, is a hugely important project for Lack and NBC--and it may prove to be the most important change in the network news world since the cutbacks of the mid-1980s. The reason is that the network newsgathering forces, even at reduced levels, are expensive to maintain. As audiences decline for the evening newscasts (they're down, collectively, by 30 percent over the past decade), simple economics dictates that the networks spread their costs over more programs and delivery systems. That's why ABC News, the broadcast news leader for now, suffered a setback when top network executives dropped plans for an ABC cable news network because they decided they couldn't absorb the attendant losses, perhaps as much as $800 million. (Just before ABC's news venture was abandoned, ABC executive Jeff Gralnick said, "If you don't agree to suffer the pain of doing this, you're agreeing to be marginalized 10 years from now.") Fox's Rupert Murdoch, by contrast, has proven willing to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in his 24-hour Fox News Network because he wants news for his global distribution platforms in Europe, Asia and Australia, as well as the United States. Their long term global ambitions explain why NBC and Fox are determined to get into cable news, even with its relatively small audiences--not much more than 500,000 households in a typical prime time minute for CNN.

The genius of MSNBC is twofold--not only can NBC now spread its costs of newsgathering across a 24-hour cable network, but NBC's president, Robert Wright, managed to convince Microsoft CEO Bill Gates to foot most of the bill for the venture. Microsoft paid NBC about $220 million for a half-interest in America's Talking, the NBC-owned cable network that was shut down to make way for MSNBC, and then agreed to put up another $250 million to cover its share of the costs of building the network over five years. The total costs are expected to be about $500 million, meaning that NBC is spending only pocket change on the effort. MSNBC now reaches about 25 million homes, not bad for a new network but not close to the 70 million U.S. homes reached by CNN; existing agreements will put MSNBC on cable systems reaching 55 million homes by the year 2000, by which time the fledgling network should be profitable. Most revenues will come from the fees paid by cable operators who offer MSNBC.

Lack is reluctant to boast, at least publicly, about what NBC and Microsoft have created, but he does point out that NBC News is the only TV news organization that has the wherewithal to deliver news on three platforms: broadcast TV, cable and the Internet. "Bob [Wright] has given me the opportunity to be the preeminent provider of news and information around the world," Lack says. "If I'm not the smartest, most successful, most important producer of news and information globally, then I blew it. No one else has this opportunity." NBC will use its various platforms to cross-promote one another, to experiment with talent and programming, and to give people opportunities they otherwise wouldn't have. Without MSNBC, for example, it's unlikely that gifted correspondent John Hockenberry would have left ABC for NBC; now he's hosting his own weekend program, "Edgewise," a showcase for his fresh, smart, offbeat brand of journalism. MSNBC's nightly talk show, "InterNight," is hosted by a rotation that includes Brokaw, Katie Couric, Bryant Gumbel, Bob Costas and Bill Moyers.

Williams, in one respect, doesn't quite fit into this brave new world of TV news. He's a bit of a square to be the lead anchor on a network that spreads across cable and the World Wide Web and uses as its slogan, "It's Time to Get Connected." Unlike those wired cyber-journalists who track events on the Internet, Williams fetches his morning news the old-fashioned way: "I go to my driveway and take out of a blue plastic bag several newspapers that have been thrown there overnight." He watches plenty of TV news, of course, and is anything but an uncritical viewer. Recently, reporting on a survey that asked people where they got most of their information about the presidential campaign, Williams said on MSNBC: "Forty percent said television, God forbid." He is only half-joking when he says, "If the New York Times would have me, I'd be happy to work there for the rest of my life."

As a kid, though, Williams dreamed of anchoring the news, not editing a paper. The youngest of four children, he grew up in a middle-class family in the New York City suburb of Middletown, New Jersey, and recalls that the family could not begin dinner until his idol, Walter Cronkite, signed off the "CBS Evening News" with his trademark "That's the way it is." Brian's father, Gordon Williams, a retail executive, was a news aficionado who encouraged his son's interest, once buying him a toy microphone so he could re-tell the day's stories, while his late mother, Dorothy, was an amateur actress who passed on her talent for mimicry to Brian.

Williams worked his way through Mater Dei, a Catholic high school, and a nearby community college, moonlighting as a volunteer fireman and helping to pay his tuition by working as a waiter and store clerk. Later he took classes at Catholic University and George Washington University, but never graduated, instead opting for an internship that evolved into a low-level job in the Carter White House. After a quick stopover at the National Association of Broadcasters where he helped run its political action committee, he landed his first television job as a reporter at KOAM-TV in Pittsburg, Kansas. From there, he moved up to WTTG-TV in Washington, D.C., WCAU-TV in Philadelphia and WCBS-TV in New York, CBS' flagship station, where he was a reporter and noon anchor for five years.

Throughout, he had his heart set on a network job, if only because the flash-and-dash of local news never suited him. For WCBS, he went to the Berlin Wall and covered the occasional Supreme Court decision, but the station also covered the likes of Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuocco.

Williams was recruited to NBC at the tail end of the Michael Gartner regime in March 1993, but it's been Lack who has turned his career into a rocket ship. Lack saw quickly that Williams had a knack for thinking on his feet under deadline pressure, a rare attribute and one that's essential for a network anchor. Beyond that, he was smart, a good writer, 6 foot 1 inch tall and classically handsome, none of which hurts. (During a recent appearance on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno, no less an authority than Cher told him, "I think you're very attractive in a Republican sort of way.") Still, many were surprised when Williams was named Saturday night news anchor after only five months at NBC. "Brian was not campaigning for the job, didn't know it was available, and it never occurred to him that he would get it," Lack says.

A year or so later, Williams was headed for Washington. His tour at the White House gets generally good grades--he's praised for being smart, hard-working and likeable, but some critics say his lack of experience showed. "He was easily spun," says a rival reporter who, like Williams, covered the Clinton administration. "Brian is a really nice guy, but he's sometimes too nice--he wasn't as tough as some of the other television people." There were those who thought Williams, the new kid in town, wasn't as tenacious as he should have been during White House briefings, where the game often consists of pressing administration officials to cough up a bit of news. Williams says he stepped up to bat when he thought it was worthwhile, but that his sense was that too much posturing goes on in the briefings.

Such criticism aside, Williams is popular with colleagues. "He's an incredibly funny, witty, collegial guy who was very well-liked," says Bill Nichols, White House correspondent for USA Today. Williams does dead-on imitations of Clinton, Brokaw and Ronald Reagan, and he was so entertaining the first time he went on "The Tonight Show" with Leno that he's been invited back three times. Thanks to the conversational tone of his MSNBC program, he's able to display a self-deprecating wit on the air. After election night, when NBC stationed him next to the Rockefeller Center skating rink, Williams quipped: "We had Peggy Fleming standing by should something happen to me."

But behind the jokester is a serious person, one who can even sound stuffy at times. On the topic of Bob Dole and his parents' generation, which he admires more than his own, Williams says: "Bob Dole is the best example of the best generation we fielded as a country. They went to Europe, saved the world, beat Hitler, came home and built Levittown, New York." He's not cynical in the least, and says there's nothing wrong with the news delivering a "civics lesson" every now and then. "He can either seem 29 or 59," says Jonathan Wald, his friend and an "NBC Nightly News" producer. "It's weird." One thing Williams has in common with his elders, Wald says, is that "there's no sense of entitlement about Brian. He's had to work for everything."

"The News with Brian Williams" allows him to indulge both his somber and silly personae. The presumption behind the program, which can be seen on weeknights at 9:00, is that those watching care about news and haven't clicked away from "Home Improvement" to be entertained. This is something of a luxury that allows Williams and Executive Producer Kathy Sciere to run longer stories, more foreign news and live interviews that go beyond a couple of quick questions. "The sound bites we broadcast are novellas in comparison to my network friends," Williams says. Lots of pieces run between three and six minutes, and this fall Williams' show did not only extensive campaign coverage but also long foreign stories that would have had no chance at all of getting on the "Nightly News." Williams is a traditionalist in his news judgments, preferring Washington and international stories to lighter, news-you-can-use features.

"This is pretty serious TV in its intent," says Tom Rosenstiel, a media critic and director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. As a regular guest analyst on "The News," Rosenstiel admits to a bias but says, "MSNBC at its best is about as sophisticated as public affairs programming gets, outside of public television, and with better production values. It's not always, of course, at its best."

"The News" is also media-savvy and refreshingly free of pretense. Williams quotes from other news sources, ending each program with the next day's newspaper headlines and crediting scoops to rival networks. The writing on the program is designed to be free of TV news jargon. Don't expect to hear about "firefighters sifting through the rubble" or "police apprehending youths" or even "the Pontiff." ("You don't hear anyone say 'Pontiff,' " notes Williams. "You hear people say 'Good Yontiff.' But never 'Good Yontiff, Pontiff.' ") When a congressman didn't show up for a scheduled appearance one night, Williams told viewers: "We've been bagged for another interview."

"Brian brings a great sense of tone," says Mark Harrington, the vice president and general manager of MSNBC Cable. "He's serious when he needs to be, because the news does deal with tragedy and sadness, and at other times wry and filled with amusement. He can have fun with things."

Put another way, Brian Williams has personality. Not one that stands in the way of the news, but one that enhances it. On MSNBC--in contrast to CNN, where executives often say that "the news is the star"--the stars are the stars. Williams will now have the opportunity to display and develop his on-air personality, to gather experience as a reporter, an anchor and an interviewer and, not incidentally, to mature. It'll be interesting to see how long NBC decides to keep him down on the farm before calling him back up to the major leagues.

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