The Rise & Decline of Brian the Mediocre

PREVIOUSLY…
In the summer of 2002, Tom Brokaw stunned the western world by prematurely stepping down from “The NBC Evening News,” an anchor chair job (his since 1980) that was usually set in concrete. He wanted to go home to his ranch in Montana, where the deer and the antelope and Ted Turner did roam. Or so he attested. His last hurrah would take place after the 2004 election. Eventually, his favorite candidate for the vacant chair turned out to be Brian Williams, whose agents had held a gun to NBC’s head to encourage Tom to fold up his cue cards and ride into the sunset. Unconsciously, perhaps, Tom realized comparison would enhance his glow for a century or so.

The life of Brian at NBC since being wooed away from CBS had been as funny as the Monty Python movie. For two years, Brian had been failing to live up to the promise he had never shown, except in the eyes of his agents, family and NBC executives. But it wasn’t his fault. NBC groomed Brian for accession to the throne by hiding him away at MSNBC. Then when the ratings were abysmal ---literally tens of people were watching him do his stuff--they moved him to CNBC. He would have gotten more exposure if they set his anchor desk and chair in the window at Macy’s.

The problem with Brian Williams, it seemed, is that wherever he goes he did not draw a crowd.

And, lo! It came to pass, after carefully grooming the anchor-in-training, Brian (I Was There) Williams was now ready to be launched in the highly competitive evening news wars.

NEXT…
OUT TO LAUNCH

1.

Ratings did not plummet the night of Dec. 2, 2004 when the “Nightly News with Brian Williams” debuted. In the same way the audience did not melt away when Lester Holt took over the still warm seat on Feb. 9, 2015, as Williams was suspended for somewhat misrepresenting his experience covering the Iraq War for the network. Actually, the numbers went up. By the second week NBC’s Nightly News” averaged 10.1 million viewers, up roughly more than 600,000. It was the rubberneck factor, i.e., the folks who slow down on the highways to look at a car wreck.

Network evening news fans are creatures of habit. Why, there are still people watching the “NBC Nightly News” waiting for Tom Brokaw to return from assignment.

For a while, CBS was known as the Communist Broadcasting System. So if you were a communist, you chose to watch the “CBS Evening News with Dan Rather.” With Dan being The 25 Million Dollar Man –the first to achieve that level of journalistic competence--it was more like the Capitalist Broadcasting System, whatever Rupert and his minions were saying.

Mostly, though, there was no special reason to watch one or another of the old established evening news troika. It was always the same story. If you saw the snail darter facing extinction story on Dan, you knew you were going to see the snail darter on Peter or Tom. It was always the same stand-up, same polls, same terrible natural disaster, all of which you already knew all about.

When Brian came in from the bullpen that year, the network evening news model was on the heart and lung machine. Folks were often not even home yet at six thirty or they had heard all the news on the car radio, read it on computers at work, text or cells.

But none of this was Brian’s fault.

2.

Commercial network evening news for years had been the sick old man of broadcasting, its foundations cracking from old age and old ideas, its audience and influence melting like the ice cap. The overall ratings for the three commercial networks by 2005, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism had declined by 34% in the past decade, nearly 44% since 1980 and 59% from their peak in 1969. While they declined in prestige and viewers, the age demos were rising. It was a race to see whether the evening news concept or the audience died first.

None of which prevented the three networks from bragging about their incredibly shrinking ratings. A 7.6 versus a 7.5! Wow, so what if we were dealing with the statistically insignificant. They reminded me of what Jorge Luis Borges said of the Brits and Argies Falkland Island War of 1983: “It was a fight between two bald men over a comb.”

It’s easy to blame the vanishing audience on the rise of the digital age. My theory is the final dance of the dinosaurs began during the Vietnam War.

A generation grew up watching network TV news lie to them about the war. For ten years, the most trusted liar of them all, Walter Cronkite, kept mouthing the Pentagon side, about how well the war was going. And that’s the way it is! And then Uncle Walter finally put boots on the ground after the Tet Offensive (1968), and said, No, that’s not the way it was.

Normally, as one generation of Barca Loungers died off, the newly maturing took their seats. The Vietnam War interrupted this evolution.

If they lied about something so close to their hearts, veterans of the TV war concluded, why should we trust them now about anything? Tom might have called them The Lost Generation.

3.

There was always the hope Brian would bring in a new audience, say, like the 18-34 demo, the millennials who were now avoiding the network evening news… well, like the network evening news.

Why, NBC News president Jeff Zucker and his boss, Bob Wright, should have been asking themselves at the time, would the Lost Generation or any other defecting news junkies like myself suddenly start watching Brian Williams after he had taken over the Tom Brokaw Memorial Anchor Chair?

True, he was a callow youth of 44 (at the time) who might appeal to the cool millennials that advertisers love, even though after paying for their condos and fusion restaurants they can’t afford, older people who had the bucks are supporting them.

Did Brian have a different point of view that would grow the audience? Will he explain why this is such a crazy world? Why everybody seemed to hate us, even though we meant well wherever we went? Why so many people are out of work or working two and three jobs, and still not able to make ends meet in a supposedly booming economy? Why our bridges are falling down while we are spending billions to rebuild Iraq and other countries we bombed?

The 18-34 millennials stayed away from the evening news in droves. You just can’t trust them damned kids. They were getting more than they wanted to know about the news by watching Jon Stewart and his “most trusted name in fake news.”

4.

It took awhile for my eyes to adjust to Brian being on Planet Earth (NBC), instead of the twin planets Mungo (MSNBC and CNBC). Changing from cable or local news isn’t as striking a metamorphosis as a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. Usually what you see is what you get.

Brian was the quintessential nice guy. As much as I admired the way he dressed, the way he could read the TelePrompTer without moving his eyes from left to right, while shuffling the papers on the desk, and always knowing the right camera, he came across as just another pretty face.

He wasn’t a good reporter. He wasn’t particularly smart. He didn’t seem to care passionately about the news. He could turn his voice down low and try to sound authoritative. But he still seemed so generic as a journalist, so weightless in the anchor chair, as if it might float away. He didn’t seem tough enough to be an anchor. If somebody confronted him, he would faint. In short, he didn’t have that certain gravitas that tells us he is an anchorman.

Somehow Brian was still not a ball of fire on the network evening news. I can see why he felt the need to embellish, or lie about his career credentials.

  

(TO BE CONTINUED)

--
Marvin Kitman
Executive Producer
The Marvin Kitman Show
March 10, 2015

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