They may not have been the ”greatest generation” of TV news anchors, but Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Peter Jennings are some of the longest-serving; each has been in his chair for at least 20 years. Now they’re beginning to pass the torch, starting with Brokaw, 62, who announced yesterday that he would leave ”NBC Nightly News” after the 2004 elections and hand his seat over to Brian Williams of sister channel MSNBC.
Williams, 43, has been considered Brokaw’s heir apparent ever since he joined NBC nine years ago, but he’s been twiddling his thumbs like Prince Charles for much of that time. Many at NBC thought Brokaw would retire at the end of his extra long (10-week) vacation last summer, but covering the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath renewed his enthusiasm for the job. Williams was even threatening in recent weeks to bolt for CBS, where there has been talk of Rather stepping down within the next couple years.
After ABC’s unsuccessful attempt to replace Ted Koppel with David Letterman, and with the proliferation of 24-hour cable news, many critics are wondering how relevant the Brokaw-style network news anchor still is. Williams, who tells the New York Times he’s wanted the job since age six, may be the last person in America who’s been training his whole life for such a role. ”You become a public citizen at large. You become a very big creature in this country,” he tells the Times. ”Talk about a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” But it’s not clear that the nation wants to turn its lonely eyes toward Williams or any of his generation of newscasters, men (mostly) who’ve spent their careers behind desks, while Brokaw’s generation covered historic stories like the Kennedy assassinations, Vietnam, and Watergate in the field, accumulating the gravitas that earns viewer trust. Even today, as ratings for the three network newscasts decline, they still draw about 10 million viewers each, about 10 times what Williams draws to his nightly newscast on MSNBC.
As part of the deal, Williams will take his current show to CNBC, away from the chattering pundits who make up the rest of MSNBC’s primetime lineup. As for Brokaw, he still expects to do news specials for NBC after he leaves ”Nightly News.” ”It doesn’t mean I’m going to sit in the Anchorman’s Rest Home and take soft food in January of 2004,” he said in a statement. ”There are other things that I will continue to do.”