No anchorman in the history of American television has ever been as groomed and prepped as Brian Williams was to take over NBC Nightly News from Tom Brokaw last night.
The transition was announced 2 1/2 years ago, and for the past 10 years Williams has been sitting in at the Rockefeller Center anchor desk in New York any time Brokaw needed to be away from it.
"One of the things we're very proud of is that we've planned for a long time to make this a very smooth, seamless transition," Neal Shapiro, president of NBC News, said this week. "And the fact that we're doing it in the middle of the week says something, which is: The show goes on [with] Brian Williams in place, in that chair, doing the same broadcast we've seen over the years."
NBC News accomplished its goal of a smooth transition - at least on the first night of the rest of the life of The NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. In a superficial sense, Williams, not surprisingly after all the practice he's had, provided a confidant, authoritative center to the broadcast. Showing no nerves, he moved the broadcast seamlessly from segment to segment. But the newscast worked on deeper levels, too.
Wednesday night, the broadcast opened with Tom Brokaw, 64, in a dark blue business suit, white shirt and magenta-tinted tie standing on a raised platform in front of a bank of hyperactive monitors introducing a series of reports on Iraq.
Last night, the broadcast opened with Brian Williams, 45, in a dark gray, chalk-striped business suit, white shirt and magenta-highlighted tie standing on a raised platform in front of a bank of hyperactive monitors introducing a series of reports from Iraq.
Both opening segments had one report from Washington and another from Iraq. The imagery - vehicles on fire, wounded men being carried by comrades and Marines marching down the road - were remarkably similar. The editing, rhythm and narrative of the pieces were almost identical.
It was all by design - an effort by NBC to reassure, and thus keep, its viewers.
"When anchors change, people do shop around," Shapiro said. "It would not surprise us at all to have some audience checking out the other broadcasts. That's to be expected if you ever study the history of anchor changes."
ABC is running a television ad campaign in hopes of luring viewers away from NBC Nightly News, the highest-rated newscast on network TV. ABC's newscast with Peter Jennings trails NBC by a little more than 1 million viewers. The tagline under the image of Jennings in the ABC ads emphasizes his tenure: "Trust earned."
"Stability is important," Shapiro said. "We've shown Brian to this audience for years now with him always filling in for Tom. ... The same cast will be surrounding him both behind the scenes, as well as the reporters - and that's the cast people are very comfortable with. ... [Viewers will] see the same cast doing the same kinds of stories."
NBC has its own ad campaign for Williams. The tagline on the advertisements for him: "Reporting America's story."
That aspect of the transition is the trickiest. It involves trying to link Williams to Brokaw's popular heartland persona. Brokaw's image grew organically out of his South Dakota, Great Plains roots, unassuming manner and, in recent years, his celebration as a best-selling author of those Americans who came of age during the Great Depression and fought World War II as The Greatest Generation.
One of the featured reports on Brokaw's final broadcast Wednesday was by Williams, who visited Ward 57 at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center to profile soldiers and Marines who lost arms and legs in Iraq and are battling back through rehabilitation. It was a moving celebration of these men and women as heroes. Williams closed the piece by suggesting they might be members of "the emerging next greatest generation."
"Don't go far," Brokaw said with a warm smile as Williams closed the report on that resonant phrase, "because we have plans for you."
In the language of television, it was a brilliantly crafted passing of the baton. Hopefully, from NBC's point of view, it will hold the first-place audience long enough for Williams to find his own TV identity.
Brokaw closed Wednesday night with a classy and touching farewell to the 15.4 million Americans who were watching. He evoked his small-town roots and values as he talked about fallibility, learning on the job, trust and gratitude both to viewers and colleagues at NBC.
Williams closed his first broadcast last night with a direct address to the audience that stressed his gratitude to Brokaw for "allowing me to sit in this chair in his absence for 10 years." He, too, talked about learning on the job - on his journey "from a small town in this great nation."
"I stand on the shoulders of the great people at NBC," he said.
His challenge now is to become one. In his own right.