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Why I Tuned Out Brian Williams

The NBC Nightly News anchor’s relentless desire to be funny has reached the point of diminishing returns.

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon / Via youtube.com

There was a point, not too long ago, when I found Brian Williams funny and endearing. I don’t feel that way anymore, though. Now, I find the anchor of NBC’s marquee evening newscast and, arguably, the face of the entire network’s news operation, irritating and decidedly one-note. I just want him to shut up.

Based on recent ratings trends, I may not be the only one tuning out Williams. As my colleague Dorsey Shaw recently noted, ABC’s World News has beaten out or tied Williams’s Nightly News in the adults 25-54 demo, the money demo for news broadcasts, over the last month. On the year, Nightly News is down 6% among that group.

At first blush, the data seems like a blip — after all, Williams’s newscast has been tops in total viewers for 254 consecutive weeks and 301 of the last 302 weeks. Nightly News is averaging 9 million total viewers on the season, its biggest audience since 2005-06, a gain of 6% and besting ABC’s World News by just under one million viewers. (CBS’s Evening News, hosted by Scott Pelley, rates a distant third.)

But in news, viewer behavior changes slowly and then all at once. NBC executives have firsthand experience with this phenomena in the recent past with the Today show. In mid-April 2012, ABC’s Good Morning America finally beat Today in the ratings after 852 straight weeks, more than 16 years, of losses. Since then GMA has regularly beaten Today in the ratings.

Today was toppled, in part, by viewer unhappiness with the network’s firing of Ann Curry and the role in it played by lead anchor Matt Lauer. And though nothing nearly as Machiavellian is happening at Nightly News, the Today episode serves as an uncomfortable reminder that news audiences can turn on an anchor as fast as they can turn the channel.

The cause for my tuning out Williams is directly related to his relentless desire to prove to the world he’s funny. At first, back in 2007 when he agreed to host Saturday Night Live, becoming the first news anchor ever to host the show, I was firmly in his corner. Why couldn’t a serious newsman show his comedic side, let loose a little, be more than a wooden word regurgitator for the silver-haired broadcast viewing masses? “No one will declare that the death of journalism will date to this night in 2007,” Williams told The New York Times ahead of his appearance, a comment with which I absolutely agreed. Indeed, his hosting was admirable, encouraging even. It was something of a small television miracle to allow a serious newsman to bring the funny.

Fast-forward seven years later, however, and Williams’s funny bone has reached the point of diminishing returns. The inner comic the Times said he had “steadfastly submerged” for much of his career has been in full, indiscriminate bloom for quite some time now. And it’s exhausting. The anchor’s desperate need for laughs is reminiscent of the late-night talk show appearances of another Williams — Robin — who has been doing the same frenzied schtick for years to less and less effect. In the past, for instance, when an event was big enough to warrant watching one of the broadcast network’s evening news shows, I would almost be compelled to tune into Williams. Now, however, if I am moved to watch TV news at all, I go out of my way to avoid watching Williams because I’ve seen enough of him elsewhere. Put another way, his omnipresence across NBC’s network portfolio and social media leaves me too fatigued to further listen to him.

The first cracks in the granite-jawed anchor’s act emerged around this time last year, when NBC cancelled his heavily-hyped Rock Center after just eight months on the air. The newsmagazine was not just a huge show of faith in NBC’s news division after the company’s takeover by Comcast, but also designed to be a creative outlet to showcase Williams’s multitude of talents to a larger audience in primetime.

It didn’t work, and not just because increased competition from cable news networks and digital outlets have splintered the audience for news. Rock Center also failed, as the Times noted in its report on the show’s demise, because of its “sometimes confusing mix of high and low, serious and silly.” The audience didn’t know which Williams they were getting and, more importantly, which one was the real him. We still don’t.

In fact, it could be fairly argued that Williams’s frequent appearances on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show are beginning to inflict damage on his credibility, confusing his audience to the betterment of Fallon’s. Can’t Matt Lauer or David Gregory “Slow Jam the News” for once?

Or consider the ultra-viral supercuts of Williams’s newscasts that Fallon’s crew sets to classic hip-hop songs such as Snoop Dogg’s “Gin & Juice” and Dr Dre’s “Nuthin But A ‘G’ Thang.” The most recent one, set to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” has viewer metrics that rival Williams’s last marquee hard news interview with Edward Snowden in May.

As of last Friday afternoon, the “Baby Got Back” supercut had garnered more than 5.6 million views on YouTube on top of the roughly 3.5 million viewers — the Tonight Show’s average nightly audience — who watched it live when it aired a little over a month ago. That compares to the 5.9 million viewers who watched Williams’s heavily-hyped primetime exclusive interview with Snowden, which placed it behind a repeat of CSI on CBS in that evening’s 10 p.m. time period and tied for second in the demo with a rerun of Modern Family on ABC.

It would be one thing if Williams’s Tonight Show appearances and viral clips — which, it should be noted, are made independently by Fallon’s team and don’t involve Williams or his team — increased his appeal among the 18-49 year old demographic. But they seem to be having the opposite effect. For the April-June quarter, Nightly News was down 6% in that demographic, and so far this quarter it is down 8.1%. ABC’s World News has narrowed the gap among 18-49 year old viewers so far in the third quarter to just 7,000 and has won two of the past four weeks in that demographic. This despite the fact that Fallon dominates his late-night brethren among 18-49 year olds, averaging more than one million viewers in the demographic per night for the week of July 21-25.

To quote Williams himself in a June Tonight Show appearance regarding the success of his hip-hop supercuts, “It’s all anyone mentions to me anymore.”

That’s probably not a good thing, and it should be a cause for concern among NBC News brass and Nightly News’s executive producers before Williams loses more fans. He just lost one.

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