- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 5, 2005

NEW YORK - Perhaps because he was busy with other things — like the news, for instance — Brian Williams let last week’s minor milestone of six months since replacing Tom Brokaw as NBC’s chief anchor go unnoticed.

“Until your phone call, I had not realized the anniversary was upon me,” Mr. Williams said.

They have been six months of extraordinary change in the evening news after two decades of stability. Dan Rather stepped down, and the “CBS Evening News” was revamped when Bob Schieffer took over. Peter Jennings announced he has lung cancer, and he hasn’t been seen on ABC in two months.

With all this churn, what’s remarkable is that there has been little obvious difference in viewing patterns. Given a chance to try something new after old favorites went off the air, few people have bothered.

The pecking order is the same as it was during the final months of the Brokaw-Jennings-Rather triumvirate: NBC first, ABC a close second and CBS an increasingly distant third.

“I am thrilled with where we are,” Mr. Williams said, “and, like any tough, cyclical business, it’s about the long haul.”

Mr. Williams’ broadcast has maintained its lead despite signs that, like the morning and late-night shows, NBC’s weakness in prime-time may be starting to hurt the network around the clock. “Nightly News” viewership for the past six months is down 6 percent from the same period a year ago.

ABC’s “World News Tonight” is off 3 percent in the same measurement. But Mr. Jennings’ absence has had no ratings impact, and ABC has beaten NBC in the important 25-to-54-year-old demographic for two ratings “sweeps” months in a row.

Despite Mr. Schieffer’s folksy style and a format change to emphasize “CBS Evening News” correspondents, that broadcast continues to lose ground. It was off 8 percent, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Jon Banner, executive producer of “World News Tonight,” cautioned that just because the rankings hadn’t changed doesn’t mean there isn’t something going on. He pointed to ABC’s demographic gains and noted that it took six years for Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer of “Good Morning America” to pull so close to NBC’s “Today” show.

“These things don’t happen too quickly,” Mr. Banner said.

CBS is the only network to significantly change the way it delivers the news, and it’s likely this is only the start with executives considering a multiple-anchor format. ABC has emphasized how it is still doing Mr. Jennings’ broadcast, only without Mr. Jennings. NBC’s “Nightly News” is structured the same way with Mr. Williams as it was with Mr. Brokaw.

NBC has always been the broadcast where the anchor gets less “face time” because of correspondent reports, said Andrew Tyndall, a consultant who studies the content of network news broadcasts. Lately, NBC has shown a tendency to give more in-depth treatment to the day’s big story, he said.

Mr. Williams writes most of his script each afternoon, beginning about 4:30 p.m. from back to front, so the first thing he says on the air is usually the last thing he wrote.

“Anyone here can tell you that I would sooner have no teleprompter and look right into the camera than to read something that I didn’t write or hadn’t seen before,” he said.

Mr. Williams shows the same tendency as Mr. Brokaw to try to take a step back, to put big events like a papal transition in perspective. When Watergate’s anonymous source “Deep Throat” was unmasked last week, Mr. Williams opened the broadcast by saying, “The mystery of our age is no more.”

It’s a tightrope walk that can lead to either poignant moments or embarrassing overreaches.

Bizarrely, Mr. Jennings’ illness has meant that for the past two months, Mr. Williams has actually been the dean of network evening news anchors.

“A friend of mine said recently that calling me the dean of network anchors is a lot like saying the Empire State Building is the tallest building in New York,” he said. “It’s for all the wrong reasons.

“For Peter’s sake, because he is a friend and a great competitor, I wish it wasn’t true.”

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