Q&A: Brian Williams

After a pitched battle last year with ABC's World News With Charles Gibson, NBC's Nightly News WithBrian Williams has settled back into first place in the evening news race. Nightly is averaging 9.27 million viewers, an advantage of 673,000 over World News (based on Nielsen data for the week ending Feb. 8). Nightly has spent the last 18 weeks as the most-watched newscast (week ending Feb. 15).

For Williams, the reason is clear: the economy. He talks to B&C Programming Editor Marisa Guthrie about the importance of tone, his former colleague Katie Couric and his late-night loyalties.

To what do you attribute the broadcast's resurgence?

We have these two enormous stories: the brand-new presidency of Barack Obama and the economy just going to hell. I would like to think there's something about our voice, there's something about how we have presented this story. We are hypersensitive to what's happening to people.

A few nights ago, I got off the phone with a good friend in Maine who had been laid off that day, and I sat down to write my depiction of the economy to share with our viewers. And it fueled what I said. Some nights we open the broadcast on an almost apologetic note. There's no joy in reporting what we have to report every night. I've almost instituted a newsroom-wide dictum that we close with something positive because it gets relentless.

Nightly is doing well in markets like St. Louis and Detroit, which have been hit hard by this economic crisis. What do you extrapolate from that?

These folks are hurting. My wife's theory is they can tell that I once used to get four meals out of a can of Spam. I think tone is crucial right now. I think offering hope is crucial; authenticity and trust are crucial.

Has the Obama team been successful in handling the media since they've been in Washington?

I get a kick out of the coverage. I heard it as recently as last night on cable: “Have they lost their way?” Now, we might want to remind everybody that the first few weeks of the Bush Administration were no different. It's our attention span these days. It's laughable.

We take a long view. We haven't asked a single correspondent or analyst: “Is it over? Has this guy lost his way?”

Katie Couric, your former colleague at NBC News, has had a seriesof high-profile coups. Has she silenced her detractors?

We've been friends for a long time. I've always been among Katie's supporters and cheerleaders. And I've always said that there's nothing better for the industry than three robust evening newscasts.

What do you make of Alex Rodriguez's admission?

That's not over. I'm watching that story as the father of an 18-year-old right-hander. It's really bizarre. That's the kind of news story I think there can't be enough coverage of.

I hear you're doing Jimmy Fallon's show in March.

Yes and I've got a date for Jon Stewart, Feb. 26.

Do you worry about going on these shows too much?

No. I try to parcel it out. I turn down a lot of things, and I think people get it. It's a nice outlet for me. Jon Stewart and I have a ball. I've done Conan O'Brien's show probably 14 or 15 times. We have a blast. People shouldn't just see one side of you on 22 minutes of what has, in the post-9/11 world, been astonishingly serious news.

What will you do now that Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien are going to be battling it out for bookings?

There's room in life to be kind. I have the good fortune to be able to call both Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien friends; they're both terrific guys. If I get fought over, that is a deeper problem in our society. So I will find time for both shows.

What about David Letterman?

I love Dave, too. But family is family.

I hear you’re a big fan of Arby’s apple turnovers.

Arby’s doesn’t get any attention for its dessert products. But the truth is they’re almost as good as the roast beef and cheddar. They’re fantastic. 

I also heard you have a special way you warm up the apple turnover.

Oh, who dropped a dime on that?! 

I’m not telling.

Who told you?

Is it true?

That was a one-time-only thing. And that was just American ingenuity. I had never had Arby’s at the office before because we’re in Midtown Manhattan. Arby’s are in America. That’s why I like them so much. Arby’s, Cracker Barrel, you’ve got to drive through America. I like being Margaret Mead to my co-workers who haven’t eaten at Arby’s. So I had this one Arby’s apple turnover and yes, just to keep it warm I teetered it on the back of the television set in my office. It is a perfect dessert and dinner warmer.

At least you’re being green.

Yes! It is green because that is heat. And it’s heat that would be lost. But in a way, I’m capturing it and repurposing it.

Maybe you can start a trend.

I’ll go ahead and challenge my fellow New Yorkers to use the escaping television heat for a good purpose.