The Man With Two Brians!

Can NBC’s personality industry save the anchor from irrelevance?

On a recent post-NFL season Monday night, 7.3 million people watched a remake of Hawaii 5-0. Another 6.7 million watched Castle, a crime procedural that’s safely avoided buzz for four seasons. A crowd less than half that size, 3.2 million, watched an American furniture manufacturer tearfully repent for outsourcing the family business, met a real-life moon colonist and saw a chimpanzee flip through a children’s book. “They like the pictures,” the voiceover explained.

They had landed on the three-month-old newsmagazine Rock Center, NBC’s prime-time bid to recapture an audience for TV news by offering a looser format in which to showcase Brian Williams’ formidable charisma. Williams’ sensibility is so deeply ingrained in the programming that Rock Center executive producer Rome Hartman likes to say that, when it’s working, it feels like “Brian’s playlist.”

“He’s got tremendous personality,” Hartman said in a phone interview with The Observer. “We wanted to give him an opportunity to show the breadth of his experience, his knowledge, his news sensibility and the range of his personality.”

Since when do news anchors need a personality?

The previous generation of TV news gods—Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw—didn’t have personalities; they had jawlines, which were square, and brows, which they knit when they told us with patriarchal gravity how the country’s day went.

In 2010, network news lost more than 750,000 viewers, according to a report by the Pew Research Center. Although NBC shed the fewest, the report noted that network news is on “a slide so long and gradual that few imagine it can now be abated, except perhaps by moving to new platforms.” Williams has a lantern jaw and an expressive brow too, but he also has the comic timing and pop-culture antennae that make him the kind of guy you’d want to make you a playlist. These traits, though by all accounts genuine, might have been reserved, in another era, for the anchor’s close friends and off-the-record confidantes. Instead, they’ve been drilled into us in what seems, retrospectively, like a company-directed cross-platform Brian Williams congeniality campaign.

He hosted SNL capably. He skewered himself on 30 Rock and he skewered his medium on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, slow-jamming the news. As part of a roundtable assembled on MSNBC’s Morning Joe to discuss the biggest media story of 2010, Williams delivered a satiric monologue about The New York Times’ “discovery” of Brooklyn so uncannily pitch-perfect that it felt like watching Skynet (The Terminator’s artificial intelligence overlord) become self-aware. It knows it’s an anchor.

It seems to be working.

“When he got the anchor job, I distinctly remember having zero opinion of him,” Eric Cunningham, a 27-year-old sketch comedian, told The Observer. “But then it’s almost like he went out of his way to let people who weren’t news junkies know that he was cool.”

Interestingly, NBC opened up programming space for Williams’ personality at the same time the ratings of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart were surpassing those of every Fox News host except Bill O’Reilly. NBC Universal tried to lure Stewart away from Comedy Central more than once, according to sources familiar with the matter. But judging from Williams’ 2007 turn as the host of SNL, they didn’t need to.

“Brian was funny before Jon Stewart,” said Alexandra Wallace, a vice president at NBC and a longtime executive producer at NBC Nightly News. Wallace said that the network opened up to his comedic outings when it saw they didn’t cost him any credibility.

“The news has become more personal,” she explained. “As the viewer, I want to feel more of a connection, and I want to feel that I’m getting to know the person who’s telling the news.”

Last summer, Cunningham and some friends started a semi-serious Brian Williams for President campaign. Not because they viewed him as a paragon of trustworthiness and authority, but because he was funny.

The real signal of the anchor’s “indie comedy cred,” he said, was Williams’ turn on ASSSCAT, a regular improv show put on by the Upright Citizens Brigade.

Cunningham doesn’t watch broadcast news religiously—especially now that it appears BriWi (a nickname Internet gadabout Rachel Sklar takes credit for) won’t be running for office—but said that he’s seen Rock Center, and likes it. “It’s a lot like Dateline, but if Dateline were allowed to not do stories on cheerleader-murderers,” he noted.

For people accustomed to digesting news through a Twitter stream that contains both CNN breaking news and Onion headlines, it’s no big deal to see the man in the anchor’s desk toggle between hard news and comedy.

“I was talking with a friend of mine about how Brian Williams manages to make you truly care about tragic-but-evergreen stories you hear about nearly every day—in a way that’s hard to pin down,” Cunningham explained. “Then four minutes later, he’ll do a segment on the ‘Shit Girls Say’ videos and it doesn’t feel weird.”

Given Williams’ obvious chops as an entertainer, we wondered, does Cunningham think Williams is wasted doing the news?

“I would be shocked,” he replied. “He’s got it together up there and is too sharp to be drunk at the desk. No offense to Pat Sajak, but going toe-to-toe with Jon Stewart comedically is a lot harder than remembering which letters are vowels.”

Um, actually, we meant wasted as in, Is his true talent going to waste behind the news desk, reading other people’s words? Williams reportedly abstains from alcohol.

“Ha, oh man—sorry, BriWi just did a segment on Sajak being drunk last night, so I thought that’s what you were referring to,” Cunningham replied.

Just because Williams is allowed to loosen his tie once a week does not mean that NBC executives are preparing for hard news doomsday. Hartman noted that NBC News’ viewership is up, and Wallace believes the glut of information online has increased the demand for TV news’ distilled synopses. Still, it would be wise for the network to experiment with repurposing its talents sooner rather than later. In 2002, when Williams was Brokaw’s heir apparent, eight out of 10 18- to 29-year-olds got their news from television, according to Pew Research Institute. By last year, more than 40 percent of them had disappeared.

But watching a news anchor pander to a generation of news consumers who don’t remember his Peabody-winning Katrina broadcast can be a little bit painful, like watching someone’s freshly divorced dad try to figure out what he missed while he was off the market.

For example, if the new BuzzFeed is banking on the idea that breaking news is a viral meme, Rock Center is banking on the idea that viral memes are breaking news. Williams has already interviewed Marcel the Shell With Shoes On and the girl from “Shit Girls Say”—not just the comedians behind them but the memes themselves.

During the Marcel the Shell bit, Williams asked viewers to “look at the number of times the video has been viewed,” adding, “a lot of network prime-time shows would kill for 14 million-plus viewers.”

Williams comes by his new media interests honestly. He has two 20-something children. The elder, Allison, has been linked romantically with Ricky Van Veen, the College Humor founder, and is a star of Girls, Lena Dunham’s HBO series about emerging adulthood in Brooklyn.

But his apparent awareness of the declining influence of the medium he’s mastered gives his coziness with Gawker a whiff of desperation.

On Jan. 15, Williams wrote to Gawker owner Nick Denton, a friend, to praise one of the site’s new weekend hires and shoot the shit. “I do wish the main page featured more TV coverage,” he wrote, adding, “Brooklyn hippster [sic] Lana Del Rey had one of the worst outings in SNL history last night—booked on the strength of her TWO SONG web EP, the least-experienced musical guest in the show’s history, for starters.”

Denton forwarded the e-mail to Gawker’s new editor-in-chief A.J. Daulerio, who promptly published it.

The post drew hundreds of thousands of viewers for several reasons. It had America’s news anchor piling on Lana Del Rey, a high-artifice songstress whose SEO, if not her record, is gold. It employed the term “Brooklyn hipster.” And it revealed a bit of in-house cattiness—the face of NBC News sneering at SNL’s booking!

But really, like most people who find themselves in Gawker’s inbox, Williams was asking the site—which attracts more than 6 million monthly visitors (twice as many as watch Rock Center each week)—for a little attention.

NBC asked Gawker to take down the e-mail. It declined. Others internally said they thought it was good for Williams’ image.

“We’re very busy with this show we put on,” was all Hartman would say of the matter.

In fact, the next week, a team of Rock Center producers were busy invading Gawker headquarters to film an upcoming profile of Nick Denton Gawker Media.

Although some bloggers presumed the segment was a public hatchet-burial, it had been in the works for weeks.

Last week, Rock Center moved from Monday nights to an earlier slot on Wednesdays, going head-to-head with ABC’s Emmy-laden Modern Family, a new Fox reality show about flash mobs and yet another crime procedural, Criminal Minds, on CBS.

“Prime time is valuable real estate,” Hartman said. “It’s a tribute to NBC News from NBC Universal and the Comcast company that they have made this valuable real estate available to us.” Indeed, some sources consider the creation of Rock Center a sop to the news division from the network’s new owners, which were then busily gutting its ranks.

Although the general-interest newsmagazine appears to be trying to be everything to everyone, in many ways, Rock Center’s strategy is a concession to the fact that viewers consume news in many, disaggregate forms. At its core, Rock Center is an assemblage of videos in YouTube-friendly lengths that can be dismantled, liked and shared across platforms. Some Rock Center stories are posted online long before they air.

“I aspire to have people sample the program, people who might not be what we consider traditional viewers,” Hartman said.

With blandly palatable long-form content and a host who is, by now, enough of a celebrity to carry even the dullest of interviews, the show feels like an extremely well-placed billboard.

But if NBC puts any stock in the notion that Brian Williams’ personality will outlast the waning primacy of the news anchor, the fable of Lana Del Rey might be instructive. In the Internet echo chamber, even the most finely calibrated persona delivering expertly produced material isn’t immune to the negative impact of overexposure.

On Jan. 23, Williams moderated a GOP debate under the Rock Center banner. The spectacle was mostly put on by NBC’s politics and special-events teams, but as a strategic branding opportunity for Rock Center, it was a triumph, doubling the usual ratings.

The next day, Williams’ friends at Gawker featured more TV coverage on the front page, deriding the “orange hipster” for overdoing it.

“Williams would not shut up,” John Cook wrote. “He uttered almost precisely the same number of words last night as Ron Paul, who was ostensibly there as a participant.”

If the criticism stung, Williams shouldn’t feel too bad. Del Rey has survived much, much worse.