Brian Williams: When the anchor goes, news audiences may drift away fast

NBC's decision to suspend 'Nightly News' anchor Brian Williams for six months may signal the beginning of a shift in evening news viewing habits.

Todd Williamson/Invision/AP
Seth Rogen, left, and Brian Williams shake hands as they arrive at the world premiere of Neighbors' at the Regency Village Theatre on Monday, April 28, 2014, in Los Angeles.

A television news organization dubs someone the anchor because he or she develops a bond with viewers strong enough to tether an audience to the network brand, no matter how strong the pull of other broadcasters.

However, when those anchors leave, the audience is cast adrift and media empires can fall, according to Joe Peyronnin, who is an associate journalism professor at Hofstra University, as well as an adjunct journalism professor at New York University. 

“In a case like that of NBC’s Brian Williams, it’s more than one man’s or even a network’s reputation but millions of dollars in ad revenue and ratings at stake,” Mr. Peyronnin said in an interview.  “For most people who watch the news they form a very tight bond with a news channel and their anchor of choice. It’s very hard to break that bond. For a news organization it’s smart business, but it comes with a very steep downside.”

Mr. Williams departs for a six month, unpaid, suspension under a cloud after he admitted to manufacturing details and exaggerating his role in a helicopter incident in Iraq.

Mr. Peyronnnin is very familiar with “building your franchise around a personality” in the news business and the value and liability inherent in the practice.

In 1999, he founded Telemundo Network News after serving as president of Fox News from 1995 to 1996. For six years prior to that, he was vice president of CBS News. As the division's number two executive, he oversaw global news gathering and news programming, including 60 Minutes, 48 Hours, Sunday Morning, The CBS Evening News, Sunday Morning and CBS This Morning. From 1979 to 1986 he worked at The CBS Evening News, first as producer and then as senior Washington producer.

“There’s a lot to be gained in having one personality be your tent pole or main point of attraction” he says. “It’s the right thing to do, but the downside is tremendous.”

In the space of the same news cycle viewers saw two tents packed in – one via Williams' departure and the other through the retirement of Comedy Central’s Daily Show host/anchor Jon Stewart. Mr. Stewart announced he's stepping down after 17 years.

“Jon Stewart’s audience members are high information consumers which is why they get the jokes,” Peyronnin says. “He and his crew really drill down on the issues, exposing the hypocrisy and lies and making us care about national and international issues.”

Peyronnin says viewers are loyal to Mr. Stewart because “He is likeable and gives you the urge to give more thought to the issues by covering the news in a way news organizations can’t.”

Even as he prepared to step from behind his faux news desk, Stewart did not miss a beat in performing a cutting send-up of Williams.

Peyronnin says that when an anchor departs the audience is set free to drift across an ocean of news options and may come to colonize other networks very quickly. It is an opportunity for competitors to shine like a beacon and forge that anchor bond with new viewers.

“In the case of Brian Williams the network has thrown Lester Holt into the anchor slot and while he will do a fine job, viewers immediately began sampling other networks in search of someone to trust enough to invite into their homes,” Peyronnin says. “We know this from the ratings slip suffered by NBC that came on day one of the Brian Williams story breaking.”

However, despite the initial slip Mr. Williams still held the ratings lead over competitors last week according to AdWeek statistics. Because ratings and rankings are so mercurial the next few weeks will determine where millions if not billions in ad revenues are shifted.

According to Peyronnin, ABC’s "World News Tonight," with first Diane Sawyer and now David Muir, had been “trying for a long time to get past NBC in the ratings” and this “body blow” may now dissolve the brand and anchor loyalty many viewers had for Mr. Williams and NBC.

“People need to find a new person they feel comfortable inviting into their home every night, whom they trust to deliver the news and to serve them well,” he says.

Anderson Cooper was already picking up support on Twitter.

Other tweets offered a variety of solutions, some serious, others could not get enough invective out of their systems and added to the dogpile of mockery and memes.

Still, it is possible for the network to recover from the scandal.

“This is not the first time NBC has suffered a terrible body blow to its credibility,” Peyronnin says. “You may remember back in 1993 when they blew up a truck. It was hard to imagine the network coming back from that but thanks, in part, to Brian Williams and the brand he created for them they came back.”

Peyronnin is referring to the incident in which Dateline NBC showed viewers a General Motors truck exploding during a report on alleged safety issues with the vehicles.

“In its apology, NBC admitted that it had used incendiary devices to ensure that a fire would erupt if gasoline leaked from the truck being hit by a test car,” The Los Angeles Times reported. “The 15-minute segment was addressing critics' charges that GM's full-size pickup trucks built between 1973 and 1987 are unsafe because their gasoline tanks are on the sides of the trucks, outside the frame.”

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