“Touch my Peabody,” Brian Williams said.
The award sits on a small glass table by the door of the NBC Nightly News anchor’s third-floor office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
Mr. Williams won the prize this year for NBC’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina, the national calamity during which the boy-journalist personally groomed by Tom Brokaw demonstrated that he was finally an Anchorman: the mature face of a major network, a manly monument around which the chaos of the day’s news swirls.
Mr. Williams was discussing his work on the afternoon of Aug. 21, before the 2:30 story meeting. The one-year anniversary of Katrina was on its way, and so was Katie Couric. On Sept. 5, Ms. Couric is due to make her debut on CBS, facing off against Mr. Williams and ABC’s Charlie Gibson in the evening, backed by a multimillion-dollar promotion budget and the belief that the nation is ready for something new to replace the figure of the old, stiff anchorman (emphasis on man).
Mr. Williams’ oft-repeated reaction to the hubbub about the evening news is: “A rising tide lifts all boats.” He wore an eggplant-colored tie that offset a deep tan—a tan acquired on a recent trip to the Middle East. He has a well-calibrated seriousness, leavened by periodic visits with talk-show funnymen. He is not so self-important that he couldn’t joke about his Peabody, the highest honor in broadcast journalism. He wasn’t bragging about it. He was merely mentioning it—offhand, a little lewdly—as it sat there, inconspicuous but unmissable. Katie Couric, if you’re counting, has one too, for her 2000 series on colon cancer.
Mr. Williams’ office is small, and looks less like a place of business than a display window from some inevitable future Smithsonian exhibit on the late, great Age of Television News.
His photographs—of himself with Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Walter Cronkite; with his family; with Gerald Ford—are mostly black-and-white, all signed. He keeps a little American flag, the kind children wave at parades, in his pencil cup. Then there is his computer, which he glanced at occasionally during an hour-long interview and referred to once, absent-mindedly, as “my typewriter” (“when I sit down at 4 or 5 this afternoon to write my portion of the broadcast on my typewriter … ”).
On his trip abroad, Mr. Williams spent a few days flexing his still-developing anchor-muscles: flying in an I.D.F. bomber, dodging missiles in Haifa, quizzing a young lieutenant from Detroit, Mich., who was about to fire off a “shell that’s gonna kill a 6-year-old boy somewhere, and how does he square that?”
(It was not a declaration that the war is unwinnable, but the question did provoke some “tumult online,” Mr. Williams said.)
Now he’s preparing for a trip to commemorate Katrina. And beyond that?
NBC’s official position on Ms. Couric’s debut, and the year-long multimedia rollout that has preceded it, is unqualified joy.
“Our philosophy has been that, look, we’re thrilled to have such strong competition,” said Steve Capus, Mr. Williams’ old friend, former producer and the president of NBC News.
“I feel terrific,” Mr. Williams said. “I’m a very competitive animal.” ( Growl!)
“I’m also a very wary animal.” And a very conventional animal and a very civilized one and, generally, a well-mannered, high-minded, dapper-to-the-point-of-dull beast.
Mr. Williams is perhaps the last of the old-fashioned news anchors: the raffish cousin to Mr. Brokaw’s all-knowing father to Mr. Rather’s batty uncle to Mr. Cronkite’s saintly Pops. ABC has picked Charlie Gibson, the Harry K. Smith of the modern era, to bring stability to its broadcast. While Ms. Couric is reinventing Mr. Cronkite’s broadcast, Mr. Williams will be taking no risks this fall, hiring no new producers, changing absolutely nothing about his first-place broadcast, which he said has changed little since the days of Huntley and Brinkley.
“Walter Cronkite called us a headline service,” Mr. Williams said. “He called us the supplement to a good daily newspaper. Well, add to that a good selection of Web sites and other sources of information and he’s still right.”
About nine million people would watch the broadcast that night. Mr. Williams calls the audience “committed generalists.” Twenty-five million total watch one of the three evening newscasts each night, about 37 percent of the people who watch TV during that time period. That’s down from the 80 percent share the broadcasts used to command, but it’s not bad. Advertisers spend $400 million annually to peddle incontinence aids and erectile-dysfunction pills to these viewers, many of whom could use them. Still, the audience is aging and dissipating.
In the last year alone, NBC lost 550,000 viewers, ABC lost 820,000, and CBS gained a modest 290,000—most of them either charmed by interim anchor Bob Schieffer or thrilled to see Mr. Rather gone.
Seeking to improve upon that modest uptick, CBS has poured more than $10 million over the last year into Couric boosterism. There are the professional headshots by a celebrity photographer and the every-other-minute commercial spots promoting her debut. There was the “Eye on America” tour that sent her around the country, and the series of meetings she’s had with CBS affiliate representatives in New York. There will be the bus ads. And the vulgar things petty vandals will draw on them.
On the other hand, there is NBC.
“We’re not doing a launch around here,” Mr. Capus said. “I think we’re the only people saying that. I mean, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We’ve got a good thing going right now at Nightly News. In a marketplace that just has gone through such incredible churn—and there’s all this tumult, you know—we’ve had a consistent presence in every sense.”
Mr. Williams has done little Couric-oriented defensive press beyond the routine duties associated with being a network figurehead. Among these public appearances, where he goes out to greet the “quote-unquote customers,” Mr. Williams makes the occasional visit to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Mr. Williams shares a number of qualities with the fake-news anchor, chiefly a habit of dismissing the significance of his position as a way of managing expectations. As an anchor, “you get to decide somewhat the direction and tenor of the coverage,” he said, “but our importance is routinely grossly inflated.” Grossly inflated, for example, to a height of four stories, which is the vertical dimension of the Brian Williams banner NBC hung outside the CBS production center to taunt its rivals.
His most recent Daily Show appearance, on Aug. 8, had Mr. Williams looking eager and Mr. Stewart petulant. “Jon was in a nutty mood that night,” Mr. Williams said, his voice tinged with disappointment. “We usually get more work done. Just that night, he was in a strange mood.”
During the appearance, Mr. Williams declined to discuss the fall competition in any detail, other than to repeat his well-worn theory about the tide and the boats.
“It’s how I feel about my friend joining our ranks over at CBS,” he said, again, while sitting at his desk and fiddling with a pair of cufflinks on Monday. “I think it’s fantastic. Look at the attention it has garnered for this time slot.”
As to Ms. Couric’s specific designs on her post, Mr. Williams expressed skepticism. She has said that during the “Eye on America” tour that took her to top markets around the country, she learned that TV news viewers, despite their shrinking ranks, actually crave an hour of news each night. Mr. Williams said: “A very, very cynical friend of mine says if they wanted an hour, then Jim Lehrer would have the highest ratings in all of television, and I reject that argument. I’m not sure. Maybe more of a broadcast-news sensibility would work better.”
CBS has also added a final segment to its broadcast called “Free Speech,” during which a different guest each night will sound off on a topic of his or her choosing. “I’m not keen on a whole lot of talk and commentary, because I’d have to kill a news piece out of my lineup to make room for it,” Mr. Williams said. “If I thought there was a shortage of talking and opinion out there these days,” he added, making a yammer-yammer motion with his hands, “I’d be a lot more prone to put in a regular commentary section at Nightly.”
As is, Mr. Williams likes things fine the way they are. “I’m such an evening-news animal,” he said. “I’ve only worked in evening news. I’ve only known the one genre, the one time slot, the day part. This is all I think about. It just—it becomes reflexive.”
Mr. Williams, born in upstate New York in 1959 and raised in Elmira and New Jersey, wanted to be an anchor from early childhood, but he did stints as a volunteer fireman and at a pancake restaurant and a Sears before his swift ascent to the top levels of broadcasting. College was at the Catholic University of America. He dropped out, like Peter Jennings before him, and began work at KOAM-TV in Pittsburg, Kan. He made his way to the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia, where he met and married his executive producer, Jane Stoddard Williams. They have two children, a boy and a girl. Among his many citations for excellence, the National Father’s Day Committee named Mr. Williams “Father of the Year” in 1996.
Some time before that, when Mr. Williams was still traipsing around with CBS, covering the fall of the Berlin Wall and other stories, Mr. Brokaw discovered him and anointed him his successor. He joined NBC in 1993, where he hosted a news show, reported on the White House and filled in for Mr. Brokaw for 10 long years.
He has reverence for Mr. Brokaw’s journalistic sensibility and anticipates passing it on to whoever inherits his anchor chair—if the chair exists to be inherited. “Which it will,” Mr. Williams said.
“I get a kick out of the people who tell me they’re now getting their news pure and unfettered, that they’ve moved to Google News or something,” he said. “I say to them, ‘You’re aware that was written by some wire-service writer working the night shift in midtown Manhattan or Washington, D.C., on an assignment desk, right?’ Yes, this is coming through a filter. In this case, the filter is this very vessel”—he pointed to himself—“that’s part of how we still choose. It’s unbelievable, I know, but some of us still want or allow a human factor in how we consume news.”
Other than being an anchor, Mr. Williams enjoys reading.
“I am blessed with nonfiction hobbies,” he said: “residential biographies, aircraft catalogs, The New Yorker, Slate, which has three or four highly readable pieces every day.”
“Luckily, I’m not into the Silver Surfer,” he said. “Luckily. I just picked up the new L.B.J. biography this morning on the way to work. This is the stuff that makes me go. I happen to have chosen a line of work where I can apply it.”
He also watches episodes of The Office on his video iPod, which is one of his few concessions to the modern era. Mr. Williams has taken a shine to blogging. He is cottoning to vlogging. He looks forward to a technological future, for which he and NBC believe themselves to be well equipped.
“Someone told me the next-generation iPod is going to have live-broadcast capability,” he said. “I always keep saying, ‘Are we gonna just call it a radio at that point?’”
Mr. Williams reached the end of the session and stood to leave. He pointed at the Peabody. His publicist hefted it for a better view. “Go ahead, touch it,” Mr. Williams insisted. The trophy was a rich bronze color, smooth and solid.