Brokaw to exit NBC after 2004 elections

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Brian Williams will be new anchor of `Nightly News'

May 29, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

NBC anchor Tom Brokaw announced yesterday that he will step down after the November 2004 presidential elections, and he will be succeeded by the man long presumed to be his heir - Brian Williams, the anchor for sister station MSNBC.

As recently as last summer, Brokaw mused publicly about how long he would stay in the television news business; he also took a 10-week vacation, further stoking speculation that he might be poised to leave the field altogether. Because he has helped to establish NBC Nightly News at the top of the ratings, his departure has not been hastened by the network.

But Brokaw, 62, says his enthusiasm was rekindled as he covered the September terrorist attacks and their aftermath. "I am here because I couldn't walk away from this story," Brokaw told reporters yesterday in an afternoon press conference. "It is rich and important and serious every day. I can't wait every morning to wake up and wade back into it."

Williams, 43, will be given greater exposure as a correspondent on major stories to introduce him to those viewers of NBC Nightly News who have missed his frequent turns as substitute and weekend anchor on the program.

"A lot of it is so that people [can] get comfortable with him," NBC News president Neal Shapiro said in an interview. "When you watch him, it's hard not to realize his intelligence, his sense of humor and his journalistic abilities."

In speaking with reporters yesterday, Brokaw gave a hint of why such an announcement - 30 months ahead of time - was necessary: "At NBC News, our cage is surrounded by very aggressive young tigers," Brokaw said. "I heard he [Williams] had a lot of overtures from other networks. We didn't want to lose him."

The network is hoping that a smooth transition helps to ease Brokaw's absence. The South Dakota native, who has spent nearly four decades at NBC News, has filled a wide variety of roles, including a five-year stint at Today, the morning program that generates the lion's share of its news division's profits. Brokaw, anchor of NBC Nightly News since 1983, has led the network to ratings success with a slightly softer focus than his competitors, as his show has evolved to provide a consistent emphasis on stories such as health concerns and lifestyle trends.

With yesterday's announcement, NBC becomes the first of the three major networks to prepare for the next generation of anchors. ABC's Peter Jennings, 63, and CBS' Dan Rather, 70, are showing no signs of leaving any time soon. While Jennings' contract is up for renewal soon, published reports state Rather has been signed through 2006, although it's not specified in what role. Many television professionals, however, say there are no natural successors to tap.

The network anchor's chair holds a mythic place in the psyche of the industry, dating back decades to broadcasting legends such as Walter Cronkite of CBS and John Chancellor of NBC. "There are three jobs in television news," Williams told reporters yesterday. "When people come to you, you're a guest in their home."

Although cable channels divert viewers from broadcast offerings, NBC Nightly News routinely draws more than five times the audience of the most popular programs on cable news stations.

And so, at NBC, executives are playing it safe. Among those most frequently noted as possible candidates for network anchor at the three big networks, there are no wild cards, no one who deviates from the conventional anchor mold - middle-aged, white and male. At NBC, Shapiro said, he and his colleagues considered no one other than Williams to replace Brokaw.

Williams has received traditional grooming for the job. After being a local anchor for CBS' New York station, he joined NBC and served as chief White House correspondent from 1994 to 1996. Additionally, he was the anchor and managing editor of the Saturday edition of NBC Nightly News for six years.

The network's news executives also announced they are shifting The News with Brian Williams exclusively to CNBC. Currently, the program is aired on both MSNBC and NBC. All three NBC channels are owned by GE, although Microsoft owns a portion of MSNBC, which is trying to put in place an all-talk show format at night.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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