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Alexandra Wallace: NBC Nightly News News Division VP Takes the Reins as EP

You’ve had a meteoric rise in TV news. What makes you qualified for this job?

I view it as a slow rise because I have been doing this 19 years now and I’ve always worked really hard at what I’ve done. I slowly climbed through the ranks at CBS, but fairly steadily climbed over the years of my career, and then I got here and things happened more quickly here.

NBC is a very interesting place because they are less bound by old-fashioned rules than some other places, and I’ve always been impressed that NBC takes chances on people they think have great potential. I remember watching [NBC Universal CEO] Jeff Zucker head the Today show at the age of 15 or something, and I was incredibly impressed that NBC gave him that opportunity.

This company was willing to take a chance with me when they hired me from CBS; they were willing to take a chance on me when they put me in the front office; and they’re willing to take a chance on me at Nightly. But I’ve also never let anyone down in any challenge I’ve ever been given, so I think I’m a decent bet.

How did you and NBC decide you would take on this role?

It started two months ago when [former Executive Producer] John [Reiss] said to [NBC News President] Steve [Capus] he was ready for his next challenge at NBC. Steve and I have been talking for weeks—months—about who runs Nightly. It’s funny: When it first began, I kind of thought, “I want to do that. I should put my hat in the ring.” But I also like my current job. So it was an evolution how it got to this decision, but I do think it was the right decision.

And you’ll keep your front-office duties?

I’m going to keep my title and report directly to Steve. We haven’t figured out exactly what of my duties I’ll keep. There are only 24 hours in a day.

Your experience is largely in morning TV. Does that put you at a disadvantage on a nightly newscast?

I actually consider myself a hard news, evening kind of girl because I started in the London bureau. I was on the foreign desk at CBS. When I was at 48Hours, we were doing a lot of hard news. I was a producer for the evening news.

Look, I wasn’t in charge of the fashion segments when I was [on] morning [news] either. I’m not particularly fashionable, but nothing against it.

I think it’s good to have a mix of experience and that’s one thing I kind of tried to do coming up through the ranks was do evening, do some morning, do some magazine. I think it’s good to do a little bit of everything.

Do you think there’s too much emphasis on network news ratings?

I mean, look, I get ratings and I want to be No. 1. And I’m happy when we are, and I’m not happy when we’re not.

But to me, I want to put on a good broadcast; that’s what I care about. I want to put on a good broadcast that we’re all proud of, that makes Brian look good, that’s smart, that’s thoughtful. I’ve honestly always believed that the viewers will recognize it and that, as a result, you get the ratings.

Why was NBC down this sweeps period?

Look, it’s very cyclical; I really believe it’s been a blip on the radar. I’m absolutely not concerned about our long-term prognosis.

ABC did well in sweeps. I definitely think lead-in is a very big part of it. Oprah is a very popular and impressive broadcaster, puts on a strong sweeps show.

And I don’t want to take away from the competition. Charlie puts on a good nightly newscast. I personally think ours is better.

How safe is it for Brian Williams to be in Iraq right now?

Any decision to go to Iraq is a tough one for everyone. There were a lot of people involved. This probably began months ago, with Brian and his wife. Steve and Brian had lots of long conversations. We’ve had lots of long conversations about security. It’s not a totally safe place to be.

But on the other hand, it is the story of our day, and Brian is an amazing journalist. While everyone else is running away, your gut as a journalist is to run towards it and report on it.

Of course, there’s risk; of course, there’s danger. If we had thought it was unfair or too much risk or danger, we absolutely wouldn’t have allowed him to go. His wife wouldn’t have allowed him to go. Steve wouldn’t have allowed him to go. It was a very thoughtful discussion.

Did you consider going to Iraq with Brian?

I have never been to Iraq, and I have always wanted to go to Iraq. Who knows if and when I will? I will have to have the same conversations with my family and Steve and Brian when we make that decision.

On this trip, it wasn’t under consideration. Honestly, a lot of the broadcast ends up begin done in New York, even when Brian’s in Iraq. So I probably wouldn’t have gone with him on this trip if I had been the executive producer.

Besides Iraq, what do you consider the biggest news stories of the day?

Afghanistan is about to bubble up again. The unbelievable early start of the 2008 campaign. Hillary’s fascinating. The Rudy story continues to fascinate.

There are amazing characters in this campaign: McCain, Romney, Edwards. Will Al Gore run or not is an incredibly rich story. The increasing interest and attention this country’s putting on global warming is going to be a huge story, just how it’s going to change our lives. Do we buy our groceries at Whole Foods because we feel that they were grown by farmers who took a little better care of our environment? The day to day part of how that will affect our lives I find very interesting.

You’ve said you’ll tweak the show only minimally. How so?

It’s just an evolution. I think it’s going to slowly, slightly change, but there’s nothing I could say like, ‘I’m only doing stories on car racing.’ There’s nothing I specifically see, and it’s just not right to the audience to make jarring changes. People like to know what they’re getting at 6:30, and there should be continuity.

There will be possibly a change in terms of focus, but it’s a little early to say. It might just be a slightly different way of telling a story, a slightly different voice in a story, a slightly different story selection on a way to end a show. That’s just a sensibility.

If you were spending all day analyzing the nightly newscasts, you might notice a difference. I don’t think the viewer will. I hope it attracts more viewers, but I don’t think the current likes-our-show viewer is going to say, “What are they doing?”

It has to be relevant, journalistically sound and interesting. We put on a really good show. It’s a matter of slight changes here and there. I don’t think it’s anything drastic at all, and I do not have any kind of preconceived notion, like, “I really hope we start doing this kind of story.”

If all the nightly newscasts continue to lose viewers, how can they stay relevant?

A shocking number of people still watch these shows: 25 million with all three combined. I’m online all day; I get that you can get your news elsewhere. I do think there’s something very nice at the end of the day being able to sit down and be told [the news]. It’s why I love to read the paper in the morning or watch the Today show.

I like someone to summarize it for me. I like someone to put it all in one place. There’s a certain editing we’ve done that I think helps the audience.

Look, we’re evolving with the times, as well. You can see our Webcast online, and if you want to watch it at 10 p.m., watch at 10 p.m. And we’re going to continue to evolve. What’s that saying? It’s not as dead as people say it is or whatever the proper way of saying that is. I actually think it’s got a lot of life left in it.