Peacock prods Williams to strut his stuff

Brokaw's heir weathering pressure

It’s been a year since NBC News brass announced that Brian Williams would succeed Tom Brokaw as lead anchor of “Nightly News.” The hitch: Brokaw isn’t stepping down until after the 2004 prez election.

NBC — and for that matter, Williams — took quite a gamble by rushing out of the gate so early in the game.

It gives the news biz, including those within NBC, plenty of time to deconstruct him.

Some don’t like what they see, criticizing the lanky Williams him for being too well put together and — in weirdly reverse thinking — too anchor-like before his time.

“Yes, there is pressure on Brian to make the transition. But if anyone was suited to do it, it’s Brian Williams. I know that on a personal level and on a professional level,” says “Nightly” exec producer Steve Capus.

“All I can say is, bring it on. The other nets would kill to have him,” Capus says.

At 30 Rock, the Brokaw-Williams transition campaign is getting underway.Williams will continue to anchor his CNBC nightly newscast, while at the same time, playing an ever expanding role on “Nightly.”

The news biz generally agrees that Williams is qualified to be a primetime broadcast anchor. After all, he’s essentially been groomed for Brokaw’s seat since he first arrived at NBC in 1993. But does he have the stuff to be a Primetime Newscast Anchor? Will “Nightly” lose its golden status as the country’s No. 1 newscast?

“This is a seachange. There is so much at state,” one exec at CBS says.

One thing is for certain: Williams’ contract, rumored to run until 2008 and be worth $5 million annually, is iron-clad.

Williams tells Variety he is weathering the pressure.

“Would it be better if I weren’t following an American icon? Oh sure. But I think one of the great things NBC has done is that when you don’t see Tom, you see me,” Williams says.

“I know I will take some shots from people. But the only relationship that really counts is the one with the viewers watching at home,” Williams says. “This is what I’ve always wanted to do.”

Of late, fate hasn’t always been kind to Williams.

He was barely a blip on the radar during the Iraq war. Several stars emerged for their coverage of the conflict: Williams wasn’t one of them.

In the opening days of the conflict, Williams had the misfortune of going MIA for three days when the U.S. helicopter unit he was with came under fire and was forced to land in the hot zone. He and his crew weren’t able to file any reports because of security issues.

So while other news correspondents were getting prominent face time, Williams had to sit the action out. Later, he was one of the first correspondents to reach the Baghdad airport, filing a riveting report using only a flashlight.

Still, Williams had missed the crucial window.

A TV Guide poll released on April 3 showed Williams coming in last place when it came to America’s most trusted anchor. Brokaw came in first place, followed by Fox News’ Shepard Smith, ABC’s Peter Jennings, CBS’ Dan Rather and CCN’s Aaron Brown followed.

When anointing Williams as heir apparent last year, NBC News prexy Neal Shapiro moved Williams’ cable nightly newscast from the lagging MSNBC to CNBC. On average, ratings for the show have been static.

Some question why Williams hasn’t been able to cultivate more of an audience on CNBC, saying it’s hardly a good omen.

Capus says that Williams always draws solid ratings when subbing for Brokaw on “Nightly.” In recent days, he easily outperformed the competish, according to preliminary Nielsen research.

Williams is being dispatched to cover the kinds of blockbuster stories generally reserved for Brokaw. Many in the biz assume Williams will play a prominent role in the Peacock’s coverage of the 2004 presidential race.

Behind the scenes, a protective ring has formed around Williams.

In recent weeks, the network hired nightly news pro Jeff Gralnick to consult on Williams’ CNBC primetime newscast. (You’d be hard-pressed to find a more seasoned news bizzer: Gralnick has worked high-up at all three broadcast nightly newscasts.)It’s been more than 20 years since NBC, ABC and CBS had to worry about finding a new anchor.

Considering the enormous changes in the TV news biz, it’s up for debate whether Williams is guaranteed icon status when he takes over for Brokaw.

TV analyst Andrew Tyndall says not.

“All they’ve promised him is the anchor job. They haven’t promised him that he will be the No. 1 fixture at NBC. He may be thinking like it’s the old days, but it’s not,” Tyndall said.

Same goes for whoever replaces Rather at CBS News and Jennings at ABC News. Both anchors are expected to ankle within the next several years.

NBC need only study history to uncover the perils of making such an early pick.

Another TV correspondent tapped early in the game as anchor heir-apparent was Roger Mudd. He was at CBS then, waiting to take over for nightly news anchor Walter Cronkite. He was subsequently passed over and Dan Rather got that gig; later at NBC he was upstaged by Brokaw, and eventually ankled for PBS. Perhaps unfortunately for NBC News, contracts for both Brokaw and Williams were up around the same time last year.

Word had it that Williams was being courted by CBS, so NBC had to quickly make good on its pledge to anoint Williams Brokaw’s heir apparent.

Brokaw’s exit date as anchor hasn’t been set.