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Brian Williams' 'Nightly News' turns ten: an appraisal

NBC News anchor Brian Williams at the Cantor

NBC News anchor Brian Williams at the Cantor Fitzgerald Charity Day event in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2012. Credit: AP / Starpix, Andrew Toth

Ten years ago today, Brian Williams succeeded Tom Brokaw at "NBC Nightly News" although perhaps more tellingly, he also launched a thousand questions: Was the hegemony of the "Big Three" evening newscasts about to crack? Were people even watching these shows anymore? Would Williams have the gravitas to match or exceed Mr. Gravitas himself?

Fine, that's not a thousand questions but it is three, and I think 10 years later, we finally have some definitive answers: Williams has done just fine, and so have the nighttime news franchises at all three evening programs.

Consider that long-ago moment: Brokaw, after a couple decades' run, was going, and by March of that year, so too would Dan Rather, from "Evening News" -- a departure precipitated by a story about President Bush's service in the National Guard during the Vietnam War.

Peter Jennings, anchor of "World News Tonight," would later be diagnosed with lung cancer. He died under a year later, in August 2005. 

But on Dec. 2, 2004, the institution of evening news was either on the verge of revolution, or on the verge of destruction.  No one could decide which, but most observers seemed to agree that at the very least,  the evening newscast was under the constant threat of ....irrelevance.

Pundits and seers had declared network news a beast on the decline, with its omnipotence long gone, and its quaint reliance on middle-aged white males -- even supremely skillful ones like Dan, Peter and Tom -- something from the last century.

Where were the female anchors! Where was implicit recognition that viewers already KNEW the day's news by 6:30 p.m.? After all, there was this thing called "The Internet." It was an amazing thing, this thing...why, you could even "google" stuff and find out about that stuff.

Dan, Peter, Tom? Come on, guys! Get with the Google!

And so today, on Brian's birthday, I am pleased to declare the palaverings of the punditocracy circa 2004 is the stuff that now feels dated, and even a bit foolish. "Nightly News" has thrived under Williams, and -- by the way, "Evening News with Scott Pelley" is in sound shape, and "World News Tonight with David Muir" -- who must've been like 10 years old when Brian got the job -- is doing exceedingly well too. (Talk about getting with the times, or at least "in the moment," "WNT" has even launched a Facebook newscast...) 

What happened? What happened was that inscrutable thing called "necessity" -- the need and desire of an average viewer to sit in front of a TV set at 6:30 to see a smartly packaged, well-presented and intelligently anchored broadcast that, while hardy presuming to offer a comprehensive overview of that day's event, at the very least offered a decent and well-defined overview.

Plus, the irony implicit in the all-news-all-the-time cable world, alongside a 24-hour news cycle, and that alongside an Internet not only voracious, but indiscriminate, was the fact that viewers would -- more than ever -- need that 21-minute window that told them the major news developments of that day.

What happened in Kabul? What is ISIS? What was the result of the grand jury decision in Ferguson? And not just that you-are-there-in-all-the-confusion coverage that cable news offered.

Williams brought something else, too: Personality, or a slightly impish approach that never devalued or diminished the importance of the newscast but added a notion that a thinking person was present and accounted for, who also had a sense of humor, and wasn't just a stiff. He pronounced Target "Targay..." for example. He wrote some of his own copy -- even his own appreciation of Mike Nichols. It was a very good one, by the way.

 Does "Nightly" need to do better? Yes, of course, always: More international news, smarter analysis, more breaking news, more coverage of stories that truly matter to the country, less coverage of the endless nattering of political football, less trivial... more in-depth...

More, more more...less, less, less. Better, better, better..

But then you can always say that. News shows, to survive, need to improve, and to constantly demand of themselves whether what they are doing is in service of that goal. Otherwise, they perish.  "Nightly" under Williams seems to recognize this.

 Meanwhile, here's what Brokaw told me 10 years ago, on the eve of his departure,  His advice to Williams, he said, was "Don't read the media writers who are predicting gloom and doom. I understand all that, because I do this in politics, too, but it's like the weekend before the Super Bowl, and then the ball is kicked and the game plan changes.

 "For all that has gone on" in the world of media, Brokaw says, "we still have the largest single chunk of audience, and by a very considerable margin, so that when there is a big story or during very newsworthy times, as they are right now, the audience comes to us.

"I certainly believe that as long as these news divisions are imaginative and energetic, they can keep their place." 

 Tom, as it turns out, was exactly right. 


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