It was a dramatic change for network news. In a span of a few months Tom Brokaw stepped down, Dan Rather left his chair at the low point of his career and Peter Jennings said he would be taking time off to fight the battle of his life...against lung cancer.
The big three anchors were the three men America had been relying on for their evening news for more than two decades.
The stunning developments were fuel for those who have been predicting the end of network news. While ABC and CBS are still working on their future direction, NBC's transition had been in the works for years.
Tom Brokaw ended his last broadcast by reading the following statement on December 1st, 2004. “…and it is in that sprit that I say thanks for all that I have learned from you that has been my richest reward. That's Nightly News for this Wednesday night, I am Tom Brokaw. You'll see Brian Williams here tomorrow night, and I will see you along the way.”
Brian Williams began the very next night with the following. “Thank you for watching we will continue to work each evening to earn and preserve your loyalty. It means so much to have you with us, as we continue a great tradition starting tonight.”
It was almost that seamless on two nights in December...the end of an era...the beginning of a new one.
Brian Williams, the 45-year-old former White House and Traveling Correspondent who joined NBC in 1993 had filled in for Tom Brokaw for years. Now he was stepping up to the most powerful anchor chair in the country, very aware that he was replacing an icon in television news.
NBC was very aware that a smooth passing of the torch was important to continued success, and that is why Williams got the nod two years before he got the job.
Williams say they were telling the viewers that they knew they were taking away a man that they had come to love.
"But, we want you to know that this is going to be a nice peaceful transition, an orderly transition, and I think it is now in the long rearview mirror of six whole months, and I think it can now be said that are plans and our hopes worked.”
With a new man at the desk the show began with a new open that trumpeted the changing of the guard. Williams says it is important to him because it is a 6-second nightly reminder of the heritage and tradition of NBC News. "It is also a reality check for me because hearing the voices of all those great men doesn't put the healthy fear of god in you nothing will.”
Viewers apparently embraced the change. Williams has held on to the ratings lead he inherited in the network news race, but believe it or not, Williams says he was looking forward to competing against Rather and Jennings at the top of their game. “I will only be happy when everyone is at their settled best. When we are what we are going to be going into the future. That's the way I want to compete. Give me your best. Come on."
It has become apparent than any changes in Nightly News will be evolutionary; the most obvious now is in Williams' style of writing. It is usually most noticeable in what he says just before he signs off each night. "His was a face we had seen before we just didn't know it until word arrived that he wouldn't be coming home"
But that’s not all, more changes are coming. Williams believes Nightly News is too ‘eastern-centric’ as he calls it. Maybe more suited for the people of New York City then say Texas. He plans to change that. "I think one of the best ways is to get out and touch it, feel it, talk to people. We have a robust system of bureaus and NBC stations across the country. That's how we find out in many cases, in addition to reading papers and web sites, what's going on. That's where the news comes in to us, and we have got to reflect on all 50."
So, each day Nightly News is becoming more Brian's and less Tom's. And, if there is anything about that transition that has made Williams uncomfortable, it is all the attention that has come with the first network news anchor change since Brokaw and Jennings were named anchors in 1983.
He calls the marketing and advertising, ‘a necessary evil.’ "It is not why we are called to these jobs that you and I have this is our profession. I couldn't think of doing anything else for a living. We have the same DNA chain, all of us in our industry. The marketing is just to remind folks where to find you and at what time at night."
The Changing Face of Network News: Part 2
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