Saturday, February 7, 2015

Some Thoughts On Brian Williams' Successor At NBC Nightly News

Now that Brian Williams has been exposed as a self-aggrandizing liar and has become the laughingstock of the internet (and has decided to take a leave of absence as detailed in this memo:, the NBC powers-that-be are, of course, huddled in their caves desperately reading the tea leaves and trying to figure out a way to salvage the shining jewel of their news empire.  At for-profit network news organizations, ratings are just as important as they are in the entertainment divisions because they determine ad rates and affect lead-ins to prime-time programming.  And even though Brian's crown is now badly tarnished, I wouldn't be at all surprised if Nightly News's ratings have gone up in the days since Brian's lie was exposed.  People love seeing a pompous news-ebrity knocked off his haughty pedestal by a phantom RPG and I'm sure that many viewers have recently tuned in to Nightly News in the hope that they can catch Brian telling another lie, or perhaps get the chance to see him fall on his sword on live TV.  Nightly News is now the season's hottest reality show.  But the long-term effect of Brian's plunge from grace will ultimately be measured in dollars.  If Nightly News cedes its top spot in the all-important Nielsen ratings, NBC News President Deborah Turness and Chairperson Pat Fili-Krushel won't hesitate to David Gregory Brian's ass (assuming he returns from his leave of absence).  Even if Nightly News maintains its slim ratings lead over David Muir's ABC World News, the question remains as to whether Nightly News can continue with a damaged anchor who is trending on Twitter for all the wrong reasons.  If Turness and Fili-Krushel do decide to make a change, I can think of a few worthy candidates--and some less-worthy ones, as well.  (Like many people, I would love to see Tom Brokaw back in the Nightly News anchor chair, but considering his age and recent health problems, that seems unlikely.)

Brian Williams reporting on "Stolen Valor" on the 2/22/12 NBC Nightly News...

...and in a later photo.

Lester Holt: Holt has over 30 years' experience as a reporter and anchor, including 14 years as a local news anchor in Chicago.  For the past seven years, he has anchored the Nightly News weekend edition and ably filled in back in 2013 when Brian needed shoulder surgery from constantly patting himself on the back.  Despite my occasional criticism of Holt, he is a skilled and smooth anchor who I believe has earned the right to move into the weekday anchor chair should that spot open up.  He has a good sense of humor, although, unlike Brian Williams, he is not desperate to appear funny and does not report gratuitous news stories for the sole purpose of leading up to a punch line.  Holt is concise where Brian is verbose, and understated where Brian is grandiose.  His affability seems genuine, rather than part of a calculated persona to be donned every night before airtime.  Ironically, Holt is an accomplished pilot and musician, two things that Brian desperately dreams of being.  Holt's main drawback is that he may not be thought of as a strong enough personality (meaning ratings-grabber) to be the public face of NBC News.

Ted Koppel: As a well-respected and veteran news anchor, Koppel would instantly return prestige and credibility to the NBC Nightly News anchor chair (which I would argue has been missing for a lot longer than three days).  Koppel has recently worked as a special correspondent for Nightly News and "Rock Center" (also known as "Brian's Folly"), so he has an association with NBC News.  Despite some accusations that as Nightline anchor he was a mouthpiece for the U.S. government, there's no doubt that Koppel would bring some much-needed gravitas to Nightly News.  However, even if Koppel was interested in the job, it seems unlikely that he could stomach the constant litany of idiotic stories that he would be required to read about dogs, celebrities, viral YouTube videos and Allison Williams' latest NBC role.  The main drawback to hiring Koppel is that at age 74, he is less likely to attract and maintain the all-important 25-to-54-year-old ratings demo that is so important to news broadcasts.

Charles Gibson: In my opinion, Gibson was the best network news anchor in the post-Rather/Jennings/Brokaw era.  He was the last of the hardy journalist-anchors who once dominated evening newscasts.  When Gibson signed off for the last time as ABC World News anchor in late 2009 after a 3½-year stint, it occurred to me that I knew nothing about him.  I didn't know if he preferred dogs or cats or ferrets.  I didn't know what his favorite football team was, or if he even liked football.  I didn't know anything about his family.  I didn't know if he drank beer, wine or scotch.  I didn't know anything about his favorite charities.  Because I shouldn't.  There's no need for viewers to have that information.  Of course, Brian Williams shares that information (and more) on a nightly basis.  He constantly self-references in a desperate effort to make himself seem appealing to viewers by presenting a faux working-class, blue-collar, regular-guy image.  A guy you'd love to have a (domestic) beer with.  "If you're a Giants fan like me...," "For those of us who love dogs...," "As a hockey fan...," "For those of us who drive...," "The huge ATM fees banks get from all of us..." and "All of us who pay taxes..." are among the expressions Brian uses to insinuate himself into news stories and come off as an average Joe.  You would never catch Charles Gibson using a cheap trick like that.  But like Koppel, Gibson's age (71) would not make him a good draw for the coveted younger viewers.

Gwen Ifill: Ifill spent five years with NBC News in the 1990's, but she has been with PBS since 1999.  As an African American woman, Ifill would certainly bring a much-needed perspective to the anchor chair, but a PBS anchor moving to a network presents problems for both parties.  Network executives may conclude that a PBS anchor would be perceived as too elitist and liberal for their viewers, while a PBS anchor may not want to read the type of pointless drivel that passes for news on the networks.

Here are a few longshot candidates:

Donald Trump: With no experience as a news anchor, Trump may seem like an unlikely choice.  But what could be more natural than replacing the biggest ego at NBC with the second-biggest ego?  It would be an easy transition for Nightly News viewers, who are already accustomed to having their news delivered by a self-promoting narcissist.  It should also be noted that Trump's "Celebrity Apprentice" regularly had better prime-time ratings than Brian's "Rock Center".

Ann Curry:  Curry was unceremoniously dumped as a "Today Show" anchor in 2012 and recently left NBC to form her own production company.  But America loves a comeback.  Or at least, in this case, might be willing to tolerate one.  Curry's main drawback is that she isn't a very good news anchor.  She talks too fast, slurs her words, mispronounces names and combines words to form new words (she once transformed "Obama Administration" into "Obaministration").  But this may not be an insurmountable problem since network news anchors rarely say anything of importance, anyway.  And Curry has perfected the look of fake concern that is so vitally important to news anchors who pretend to care about the people they exploit.

Jon Stewart:  Since Stewart was recently offered the moderator's job on "Meet the Press", it's no secret that NBC covets Stewart's talent.  And Stewart (for the next two years, anyway) is actually part of the much-desired 25-to-54-year-old Nielsen demographic.  A 2009 Time magazine poll listed Stewart as the nation's most trusted newsperson--ahead of even Brian Williams, who had not yet been widely exposed as a liar.  Tapping Stewart to anchor Nightly News could create an interesting situation--Brian could then lobby for the open anchor spot at "The Daily Show" since he believes that he is the funniest person in America.

Michael Douglas:  Douglas is already familiar to Nightly News viewers as the voice that introduces Brian most nights, so he would be a natural choice to replace Brian.  As an added bonus, Douglas could report news stories in the voices of the characters he has played on television and in the movies.  He could report financial news as Gordon Gekko, crime and law enforcement news as Inspector Steve Keller, adventure stories as Jack Colton, music news as Liberace and political news as President Andrew Shepherd.  And if he's feeling ironic, he could hire Brian to introduce him each night.

The million-dollar question (Brian's monthly salary) is: Can Brian Williams hang on?  At this point, no one can say.  Brian's strategy in dealing with public relations problems (such as the self-enriching agendas of NBC News's military consultants or the doctoring of George Zimmerman's 911 tapes) has always been to ignore them and wait until they blow over.  But that may not be possible as long as #BrianWilliamsMisremembers continues to trend on twitter.