By DAVID BAUDER
NEW YORK — Forget Jay Leno. Maybe NBC should have considered Brian Williams for a prime-time job.
The week before last, Williams’ ‘Nightly News‘ was seen by an average of 10.1 million viewers each evening. Not only was that more than Leno, it beat every other program NBC showed in prime time all week, with ‘The Biggest Loser‘ closest at 9.7 million, the Nielsen Co. said.
That’s not bad for a format – the network evening newscast – considered on its deathbed longer than most college students have been alive. It’s equally impressive for NBC News, which has thrived even though everything else at the network is falling apart.
Both the ‘Today‘ show and Williams’ flag-shift newscast have increased already substantial leads in the ratings over second-place broadcasts on ABC News since each of those competitors switched anchors in December.
Five years into his job, competing with ABC’s Diane Sawyer and CBS’ Katie Couric, Williams is now the dean of evening news anchors.
“Having turned 50 this year, I suddenly woke up and I’m in the demographic that my parents were in when they were in the prime of watching an evening newscast,” Williams said.
The stiff air of formality that characterized his early days replacing Tom Brokaw is gone now, and viewers are responding. The weeks that he slipped behind ABC’s Charles Gibson in the ratings seem a distant memory, too. ‘Nightly News’ averaged more than 10 million viewers each week in January, and the show’s 11 percent margin over ABC before Sawyer took over swelled to 16 percent once she became anchor.
Williams is comfortable in his skin, and NBC has constructed a newscast around his strengths, said news consultant Andrew Tyndall, who studies the content of evening newscasts.
The third segment in the newscast is all Williams, with the type of quirky stories he loves: a new Heinz ketchup packet; a freak shark attack on a surfer; the demolition of Giants Stadium last Thursday, for example. In response to viewer e-mails, “Nightly News” has emphasized more of its positive “Making a Difference” segments.
Williams said he believes his viewers are confident when they tune in that they will be getting a broadcast without a lot of yelling and screaming, or advancing of agendas. “It’s as straight down the middle as they come and we struggle mightily to do that each day,” he said.
One of Tyndall’s writer friends is constantly exasperated by Williams’ style of “backing in” to hard news stories. But Tyndall said it suits Williams’ style.
“He doesn’t hype every story and make it a matter of life and death,” he said. “It’s really a comfortable way to watch the news.”
Williams is backed by a strong news team that has built a predictable brand, said Marcy McGinnis, a former CBS News executive now teaching journalism at Stony Brook University. She said she taped two NBC News stories this week to show to her students as examples of good work.
NBC takes pride in gradual, well-planned transitions – at least in news – and that’s why NBC News President Steve Capus isn’t proclaiming victory over Sawyer. “Right now, it looks very good and we’re happy, but it’s not over,” he said.
Williams is more likely to become a greater presence in prime time for NBC. The network will have time to fill when Leno returns to late night later this month, and Williams may start contributing some longer-form documentaries, Capus said.
‘Nightly News’ won’t be going to prime time – that suggestion was facetious – but might it make sense to stretch a successful half-hour broadcast to an hour? After all, the ‘Today’ show is now four hours.
“We’d love to have that extra time,” Capus said. “If others thought that it made sense, we would obviously look at trying to do it. But at this point, our attention is on the `Nightly News’ broadcast that we have.”
Capus’ division is looking increasingly like an island at NBC. Despite some missteps – cringe-worthy attempts to catch sexual predators and participation in a network-wide deal to hype Bon Jovi – it is successful financially and in finding an audience.
Cutbacks two years ago in anticipation of rough advertising markets helped the bottom line; CBS News is currently going through a round of layoffs. NBC also saved money by closing facilities in New Jersey and bringing CNBC and MSNBC personnel to work at the company’s Rockefeller Center headquarters, and that had the added benefit of energizing the division, Capus said.
“I would suspect that if you walked through the newsrooms of other networks that you don’t have the kind of energy that you see here now,” he said. “We’re on the news all the time. This is a place that doesn’t have a lull from the morning show to the evening show.”
The situation at NBC is an odd polar opposite to CBS, where prime-time entertainment is thriving and the news division struggling.
“The brand of NBC News and the programs that are tied to it have never been stronger,” Capus said. “There’s nothing we can do about the other things except be supportive.”
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