The Rise & Decline of Brian the Mediocre

NBC was forced into naming Brian Williams as the hair apparent to Tom Brokaw by shrewd agentry. Look, his agents said, you guys have to give a Brian a timetable or he will take the CBS offer to become the next Walter Cronkite. It was the same trick Dan Rather’s agent used — the old Roone Arledge wants me — to make Cronkite take early retirement. With the gun held to its head, NBC folded. Amid the clinking of champagne glasses, the toasts celebrating the election of a new pope of News (Brian the Unexceptional), on the stage in Studio 8-H Tom and Brian were like two scorpions in a bottle, looking at each other warily. The network guys sitting on the stage—Andrew Lack wouldn’t look at Bob Wright and Bob Wright wouldn’t look at Andy Lack; Neal Shapiro didn’t want to seem to be looking at either of them –were thinking this ain’t going to be my problem. In three years, my ass will be out of here. All I have to do is get through this morning. As the flugelhorns were blowing, and the blue print of the future at NBC News was laid out for the media, an 18-wheeler could have been driven between Brokaw and Williams looking in opposite directions on the stage. Tom was not a happy camper, whatever was said. His involuntary buyout violated the unwritten laws of network evening news, as if carved in stone: anchor jobs were like being president of a Third World nation, president for life. But Tom at least had three years to try to kill Brian.

The thrilling story of how a man can rise through the ranks with nothing much on the ball.

With Brian bobbing in the water, while Tom was serving his time as anchor emeritus, the gang of three behind the Williams putsch faced a dilemma. Put him in now as the permanent replacement, Brian’s people demanded. Or else!

But this was the network evening news wars. It would be Williams against Peter the Great (Jennings at ABC) and Dan Blather, the 25 million dollar anchorman at CBS. You don’t send a kid like Brian up in a crate like that, as they used to say in World War I movies. In a dogfight between the Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen, Brian was Snoopy the dog.

Brian Williams might be the rookie phenom of the century in news, as we were told, a rare talent the network suits had discovered, but he needed to be sent down to the minors for seasoning.

Tom thought it would be a good idea for Brian, the shadow anchor, to start out at either MSNBC or CNBC, two NBC farm teams.

In those days, it was a choice not unlike a Japanese soldier on the Pacific islands at end of World War II: commit hari-kari with a sword or jump off a cliff.

Why don’t you just go over to MSNBC and practice, Brian the network’s franchise player, was told.

What a vote of confidence, I remember thinking at the time about the plum assignment.

In those early days, MSNBC had all the class of a cable station public access show. But it gave Brian the chance to refine his skills, to perfect that little turn to the cameras, read the prompter with correct emphasis, come on the air every night with a shirt that wont wrinkle, and other marks of a serious TV journalist.

The best thing about going down to a cable network it could reduce tension for a rookie network superstar. With its viewer numbers at MSNBC, it was as if Brian had been sent to the Betty Ford Clinic, where nobody will know what happened to him for six months. He was in a cryogenic container until Tom was ready to cash in his chips.

As Brian grew restless, the network brainiacs told Brian he was being promoted to the evening news at CNBC. More people would have seen him reading the news by sitting in the window at Macy’s.

As the shadow anchor aged, he ran the risk of becoming even more faint a presence, until he would disappear altogether as Tom Brokaw may have had a secret wish.

At this rate, my fear was that Brian would be a senior citizen by the time he got a shot at the big time.

Following the growth of the rookie phenom those years, I found myself wondering what exactly was a Brian Williams anyway?

The man Brian would be replacing some day, Pope Tom, was as warm as a fish on television with an aloof, cold, mechanical snooty air about him. He was the first male TV news personality with a subliminal diction defect. He sounded as if he was about to choke on his l’s, which he pronounced gl as in glitch. My friend Robert J. McLaughlin once told me, “I knew a kid who did the same thing. His name was Leo. We used to call him Gleo.” I am ashamed to say I still get absolutely fixated when Tom is appearing on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, waiting the next L-word to roll around TB’s mouth.

But that didn’t hurt Tom’s career at NBC News. Since Barbara Walters’ eminence, everybody seemed to have speech impediments at NBC News. Walters, as you recall, has a lateral lisp, made famous by Gilda Wadner.

Brian was impediment free.

From his early days at local WCBS/Ch.2 news he came across as a nice guy with a sparkling friendly smile, always well dressed. He was like Edward R. Murrow in the sense they both used the same haberdashery (Turnbull & Asser).

He always struck me as more of an actor/model playing a newsman. There was a certain nothing about him at his core that I couldn’t put my finger on.

He seemed to be one of those lucky people who auditioned well, but never grew in dimension. He also lacked the G-factor (gravitas) that made successful network anchor people, a kind of sincerity even if they faked it.

Watching Brian in his early days on the local news, it was as if he had been cut out of cookie dough. He was so generic, so vanilla, so white bread. Not that was anything wrong with white bread, provided it has the extra nutrients and vitamins added, all the things that they take out to make it white bread.

Brian’s future, it always seemed to me, was behind him.

In the interest of transparency and full disclosure, I should stop here and point out that I was not a member of the media who fawned over Brian Williams and thought that his arrival as the new anchor of “The NBC Evening News with Brian Williams” was the greatest contribution to western civilization since sliced bread.



Marvin Kitman
Executive Producer
The Marvin Kitman Show
Feb. 22. 2015

Marvin Kitman is the author of “The Coward’s Almanac, or the Yellow Pages” [Doubleday & Co., 1975].