12 to Watch 2005: Brian Williams

Jan 10, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Britain’s Prince Charles could learn from the admirable patience Brian Williams exercised over the decade he waited for Tom Brokaw to relinquish the “NBC Nightly News” throne to him.

Were Queen Elizabeth’s heir to ask advice about making such a significant transition without setting off any big ripple, Mr. Williams might give the advice he tried to live by himself: “Just remember that a circumstance like this isn’t at all about your arrival. It’s about the departure of an icon. It’s about the departure of an American dinner guest for 22 years.”

Actually, it’s more than that. Pundits will watch Mr. Williams (and in a few weeks, Dan Rather’s soon-to-be-named replacement at CBS) not just for news of the day but for signs of significant life in a newscast that, despite erosion in the cable- and Internet-news era, still attracts the largest news audience night in and night out. But as far as Mr. Williams is concerned, it’s all about maintaining the personal relationship with viewers that his predecessor Mr. Brokaw built over the past 21 years.

“It is a very intense relationship that develops,” he said. “It’s very personal-at least it feels that way to me. A lot of [viewers] have written. I write them back. I read them all. It’s very important.”

In the weeks following Mr. Brokaw’s Dec. 1 departure, little has changed. Even off-camera routines were so scrupulously maintained that Mr. Brokaw was able to deliver his “good luck” message to Mr. Williams with split-second timing Dec. 2.

“I got an e-mail from Tom, the night I took over. It was like 6:24 p.m., because he knows our routine. … So he knows I get up at around 6:26 and walk in there, and he sent me an e-mail that I will say was personal and private and very nice and that said, in effect, ‘Go get ’em and Godspeed.’

“I wrote him back in about 30 seconds, and I said the way I’m going to get through this is telling myself it’s another night of filling in for Tom.”

Just the Facts …

Title: Anchor and managing editor, “NBC Nightly News”

How long in current position: Since Dec. 2, 2004

Year of birth: 1959

Place of birth: Elmira, N.Y.

What to watch for: The ratings. Mr. Williams headed into the holiday weeks with an average of 10.54 million viewers, up from the 10.09 million viewers the show had averaged since the start of the season.

Who knew? Mr. Williams recently bought his first new car in four years, a dark-green Jeep Grand Cherokee with a 5.7-liter Hemi V8 engine that saves fuel by shutting off half the cylinders during stretches of light use.