Brian Williams: The Last Celebrity Evening News Anchor

By Mark Joyella 

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We will soon learn that Brian Williams will not return to his job as anchor of NBC Nightly News. Or, perhaps he will–who knows, really? The folks inside NBC News must be talking about it, but not publicly, and the leaks that have emerged from 30 Rock have all sounded very much the same–and very, very vague: well, Brian will not return as anchor. Unless he does. But we may find a new role for him. Or he’s leaving NBC entirely. It sorta depends.

So we’ll just have to wait until NBC decides, we all report and you all repeat the news in what will be a giant social media exhale. (And despite feeling enormous and category-five-hurricane-like, it will still leave some of our immediate relatives days later telling us the news as if, perhaps, we hadn’t heard about it.)

But beyond Brian Williams and his career, this much seems clear: no matter what NBC decides to do, future anchors of the network evening newscasts will be paid much, much less.

It’s estimated Williams makes $10 million a year. The TV news logic has always been that the person (mostly, the white man) that sits at that desk is a gigantic personality who, through the force of his personality and gravitas, lures millions of viewers to the newscast each night–and allows the network to sell advertising to that audience.

In the past, people were Cronkite viewers, or Huntley-Brinkley viewers. More recently, people would say they preferred Rather over Brokaw, or Jennings over Rather.

The other day, my father told me simply, he watches Nightly News. And that’s where things have changed. Today the newscast is the draw, not the person at the desk. ABC didn’t lose a beat as it transitioned from a giant-sized news talent in Diane Sawyer, to a far more human-sized anchor in David Muir.

Recently, Frank Rich described the change of anchor at ABC as a milestone. “Both (Muir’s) elevation and the Twitter-feed-paced broadcast he is anchoring are ABC’s open acknowledgments, if any were needed, that the anchorman as we’ve known him since the Cronkite era is done.”

At NBC, the suspension of Williams—while seen as a seismic event by professional media-watchers—seems to have generated hardly a ripple among Nightly viewers, who have kept on showing up at the same time each weeknight, unfazed to find Lester Holt at the desk. Nice guy, familiar face, same trusted newscast.

And NBC has remained competitive, even without—as Variety noted—putting any promotion behind Holt. It’s entirely possible Brian Williams could be advised to report to an NBC loading dock to pick up his belongings in a cardboard box, and Nightly News would hardly miss a beat. As CNN’s Brian Stelter put it this week, “it’s revealing, perhaps, that among Nightly News staffers, Williams’ name rarely comes up nowadays.”

The same may be true for Nightly News advertisers. As Kantar Media reported earlier this year, the evening newscasts, with their aging viewers, attract a “valuable, but limited group of advertisers.” In 2014, Nightly News owned 35 percent of total ad revenue for the three network evening newscasts. “Two percentage points better than an even split isn’t as proportionately great an advantage as you might expect based on the show’s ratings lead,” wrote Kantar’s Elizabeth Wilner.

Revenue for all three newscasts is down, despite overall revenue for the networks rising. It seems far less convincing to argue that any anchor can reverse that trend, making it very hard to justify a celebrity salary.

If Scott Pelley’s making, say, $7 million a year, are we to conclude that the CBS Evening News, getting about a third of the evening news advertising revenue despite being third in the ratings, would be at a competitive disadvantage if Pelley bolted and CBS replaced him with ABC’s Byron Pitts?

This isn’t morning TV, where chemistry remains king, and familiarity is important. As Kantar reports, revenue at the network morning shows is not a three-way split. Differences between the morning shows are significant, and there’s big money to be made. Where NBC Nightly News made $148 million in 2014, Today brought in $435 million.

So Brian Williams may be back. Or maybe not. Williams may stay at NBC, or he may leave. But Nightly News, like the CBS Evening News and ABC’s World News Tonight, will carry on–at least, for now. With 57 percent brand affinity, broadcasters remain a trusted habit. And that habit seems detached from a personal attachment to the anchor at the desk, deserving of an outsized salary.

That said, if and when Lester Holt officially gets the job, his agent will surely be waiting with a proposal for a nice, fat salary bump.