NBC leaving little to chance in switch from Brokaw to Williams

Monday, May 10, 2004

NEW YORK -- Every week or so, a handful of NBC News executives meet to plot the schedule of a man who usually isn't in the room.

They're planning for an epochal event in the world of television news, when Brian Williams takes over for Tom Brokaw on Dec. 2 as the anchor of NBC's "Nightly News."

If only it were as simple as switching a nameplate over a door.

It's been more than 20 years since there's been a change among the Big Three of network news -- Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather -- and NBC is leaving nothing to chance.

"The goal is simple," said NBC News president Neal Shapiro. "We want this to be the best, most effective transition in the history of broadcast news."

He's had more planning time than most presidential transitions.

NBC announced on May 28, 2002, that Brokaw would step down after this fall's election and be replaced by Williams. In reality, Williams, 45, has been groomed for the job for a decade, since he was hired from WCBS-TV in New York and installed as Brokaw's chief sub. For a while, it seemed "heir apparent" was Williams' new first name.

Williams honed his craft by anchoring a nightly news show on MSNBC and CNBC, before he was reassigned as a nightly news correspondent this winter.

The idea was to make him more visible on the broadcast he would take over, give him more experience reporting big stories and, perhaps most importantly, get him on the road.

"He is running around like a political candidate," said Steve Capus, "Nightly News" executive producer.

Capus is on the committee that meets regularly, often in Shapiro's office, to coordinate the mixture of reporting, glad-handing and promotion on Williams' schedule.

"I'll remind you that we are a division of General Electric," Williams said. "They do nothing sloppily."

Particularly when it comes to a big investment. Evening news ratings are the most commonly used yardstick to measure a network news division's strength, and NBC has been on top since the mid-1990s. No one knows whether Brokaw's exit will prompt viewers to change channels to the veterans on ABC or CBS instead of trying the new guy.

NBC's organization in the transition has even drawn some praise where it's least expected.

"I'm not saying it's going to work, but I think they've done a very good job to make the transition to Williams and bring out what's best about both of these guys," said Jim Murphy, executive producer of the "CBS Evening News."

It will probably be a year or so before the transition can be judged a success or failure.

"I do what I do and I put it out," Williams said. "It's a very subjective business, but that's always been the equation in my professional life in television. This is no different."

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