Forget Jay Leno. Maybe NBC should have considered Brian Williams for a prime-time job.
The week before last, Williams' "Nightly News" was seen by an average of 10.1 million viewers each evening, The Associated Press reports. Not only was that more than Leno, it beat every other program NBC showed in prime time all week, with "The Biggest Loser" closest at 9.7 million, the Nielsen Co. said.
That's not bad for a format - the network evening newscast - considered on its deathbed longer than most college students have been alive. It's equally impressive for NBC News, which has thrived even though everything else at the network is falling apart.
Both the "Today" show and Williams' newscast have increased substantial leads in ratings over second-place broadcasts on ABC since each of those competitors switched anchors in December.
Five years into his job, competing with ABC's Diane Sawyer and CBS' Katie Couric, Williams is now the dean of evening news anchors.
The stiff air of formality that characterized his early days replacing Tom Brokaw is gone now, and viewers are responding. The weeks that he slipped behind ABC's Charles Gibson in the ratings seem a distant memory, too. "Nightly News" averaged more than 10 million viewers each week in January, and the show's 11 percent margin over ABC before Sawyer took over swelled to 16 percent once she became anchor. NBC has constructed a newscast around Williams' strengths, said news consultant Andrew Tyndall, who studies the content of evening newscasts.
The third segment in the newscast is all Williams, with quirky stories he loves: a new Heinz ketchup packet; a freak shark attack on a surfer; the demolition of Giants Stadium last week, for example. In response to viewer e-mails, "Nightly News" has emphasized more of its positive "Making a Difference" segments.