The Man With Two Brians! Can NBC’s Personality Industry Save the Anchor from Irrelevance?

BriWi's their guy for national disasters, Internet explainers, presidential debates and ASSSCAT cameos.

Just because Mr. Williams is allowed to loosen his tie once a week does not mean that NBC executives are preparing for hard news doomsday. Mr. Hartman noted that NBC News’s viewership is up, and Ms. Wallace believes the glut of information online has increased the demand for TV news’s distilled synopses. Still, it would be wise for the network to experiment with repurposing its talents sooner rather than later. In 2002, when Mr. Williams was Mr. Brokaw’s heir apparent, eight out of ten 18- to 29-year-olds got their news from television, according to Pew Research Institute. By last year, more than 40 percent of them had disappeared.

But watching a news anchor pander to a generation of news consumers who don’t remember his Peabody-winning Katrina broadcast can be a little bit painful, like watching someone’s freshly divorced dad try to figure out what he missed while he was off the market.

For example, if the new BuzzFeed is banking on the idea that breaking news is a viral meme, Rock Center is banking on the idea that viral memes are breaking news. Mr. Williams has already interviewed Marcel the Shell With Shoes On and the girl from “Shit Girls Say”—not just the comedians behind them but the memes themselves.

During the Marcel the Shell bit, Mr. Williams asked viewers to look at the number of times the video has been viewed, adding, “A lot of network prime time shows would kill for 14 million plus viewers.”

Mr. Williams comes by his new media interests honestly. He has two 20-something children. The elder, Allison, has been linked romantically with Ricky Van Veen, the College Humor founder, and is a star of Girls, Lena Dunham’s HBO series about emerging adulthood in Greenpoint.

But his apparent awareness of the declining influence of the medium he’s mastered gives his coziness with Gawker a whiff of desperation.

On Jan. 15, Mr. Williams wrote to Gawker owner Nick Denton, a friend, to praise one of the site’s new weekend hires and shoot the shit. “I do wish the main page featured more TV coverage,” he wrote, adding, “Brooklyn hippster [sic] Lana Del Rey had one of the worst outings in SNL history last night — booked on the strength of her TWO SONG web EP, the least-experienced musical guest in the show’s history, for starters.”

Mr. Denton forwarded the email to Gawker’s new editor in chief A.J. Daulerio, who promptly published it.

The post drew hundreds of thousands of viewers for several reasons. It had America’s news anchor piling on Lana Del Rey, a high-artifice songstress whose SEO, if not her record, is gold. It employed the term “Brooklyn hipster.” And it revealed a bit of in-house cattiness—the face of NBC News sneering at SNL’s booking!

But really, like most people who find themselves in Gawker’s inbox, Mr. Williams was asking the site—which attracts more than six million monthly visitors (twice as many as watch Rock Center each week)—for a little attention.

“I do wish the main page featured more TV coverage.”

NBC asked Gawker to take down the email. It declined. Others internally said they thought it was good for Mr. Williams’s image.

“We’re very busy with this show we put on,” was all Mr. Hartman would say of the matter.

In fact, the next week, a team of Rock Center producers were busy invading Gawker headquarters to film an upcoming profile of Nick Denton Gawker Media.

Though some bloggers presumed the segment was a public hatchet-burial, it had been in the works for weeks.


Next week, Rock Center will move from Monday nights to an earlier slot on Wednesdays, going head-to-head with ABC’s Emmy-laden Modern Family, a new Fox reality show about flash mobs and yet another crime procedural, Criminal Minds, on CBS.

“Prime time is valuable real estate,” Mr. Hartman said. “It’s a tribute to NBC News from NBC Universal and the Comcast Company that they have made this valuable real estate available to us.”

Indeed, some sources consider the creation of Rock Center a sop to the news division from the network’s new owners, which were then busily gutting its ranks.

Although the general interest newsmagazine appears to be trying to be everything to everyone, in many ways, Rock Center’s strategy is a concession to the fact that viewers consume news in many, disaggregate forms. At its core, Rock Center its an assemblage of videos in YouTube-friendly lengths that can be dismantled, liked and shared across platforms. Some Rock Center stories are posted online long before they air.

“I aspire to have people sample the program, people who might not be what we consider traditional viewers,” Mr. Hartman said.

With blandly palatable long form content and a host who is, by now, enough of a celebrity to carry even the dullest interviews, the show sometimes feels like an extremely well-placed billboard for Mr. Williams and his NBC News Superfriends like Kate Snow, and, yes, Chelsea Clinton.

But if NBC puts any stock in the notion that Brian Williams’s personality will outlast the waning primacy of the news anchor, the parable of Lana Del Rey might be instructive. In the Internet echo-chamber, even the most finely calibrated persona delivering expertly produced material isn’t immune to the negative impact of overexposure.

On Jan. 23, Mr. Williams moderated a GOP debate under the Rock Center banner. The spectacle was mostly put on by NBC’s politics and special events teams, but as a strategic branding opportunity for Rock Center, it was a triumph, doubling the usual ratings.

The next day, Mr. Williams’s friends at Gawker featured more TV coverage on the front page, deriding the “orange hipster” for overdoing it.

“Williams would not shut up,” John Cook wrote. “He uttered almost precisely the same number of words last night as Ron Paul, who was ostensibly there as a participant.”

If the criticism stung, Mr. Williams shouldn’t feel too bad. Ms. Del Ray has survived much, much worse.


The Man With Two Brians! Can NBC’s Personality Industry Save the Anchor from Irrelevance?