Already, even before announcer Don Pardo can shout, "Briiiii-annnn Willllll-iams" at a few minutes past 11:35 p.m., you can practically hear the media purists grinding their back molars in despair of yet another breach of faith in the television biz.
Skeptics may wonder what's next. Will CBS' Katie Couric try to goose her flagging ratings by cracking a case on an episode of "C.S.I."? Perhaps ABC's Charles Gibson will defend his No. 1 rating by making a cameo on "Desperate Housewives." (Couldn't you picture him popping up in a scene playing an ever-reliable corner druggist named Fred?)
I say, it's about time that Brian Williams tried to let his hair down on TV.
Maybe, just maybe, this unusual experience will help Williams loosen up. And if he does that, he might just reclaim his ranking from Gibson as the top evening-news anchor.
To Gibson's credit, audiences eventually recognized something essential: What you see is what you get. He is steady and consistent, but not stuffy.
But there seem to be two Brian Williamses, you see.
The Life of Brian(s)
There is, of course, the Williams we all know: the earnest anchor, a persona that has served him very well over the years and made him a star at every stop in his career.
The evening-news viewers trust him, even if he doesn't quite inspire the same kind of awe as Walter Cronkite or quite the same level of everyman appeal as his predecessor, Tom Brokaw. (Williams will need a few more years to attain that brand of gravitas.)
The lanky Williams epitomizes the prototype of the 21st century TV journalist. He is as comfortable talking about Iraq in the studio as he is reporting from the war-torn country. He is at home appearing on the Yes Network's "CenterStage" talk show and telling viewers -- oh-so-earnestly, of course -- something earth-shattering, like the fact that the Beatles are his favorite rock-and-roll band.
Then there is the Williams that viewers unfortunately don't get to see and hear up close. This Williams is relaxed, laugh-out-loud funny, droll, witty and wry. Most of all, he is unself-conscious and unconcerned about safeguarding his image and that of The Whole History of Television News. This isn't the guy who talks as if he fears Brokaw or Cronkite will appear from the shadows and shake their heads in disapproval.
For instance, Williams has poked fun at bloggers (of which he is one, by the way) by characterizing them as something like nerds who write in their bathrobes and haven't left their apartments in two years. The cutting remark was something you might instead expect to read on Gawker.
This is the Williams I wish his audience could glimpse. Even more, I wish HE would show this side of his personality to his viewers. He wouldn't lose any of his hard-earned credibility; in fact, he'd gain more critical admiration for letting people in a little. I'm not suggesting he morph into Ron Burgundy, the outrageous character portrayed by Will Ferrell in "Anchorman," but a little easing up would be constructive.
Williams' colleagues shrug off my observations and remind me that he is presiding over a show lasting only about 22 minutes each night. They say he has to look serious because the evening news is just that, what with the death toll rising in Iraq, President Bush attempting to put his stamp on history and the presidential candidates campaigning on the stump.
Last week, I spoke with Williams one-on-one at an NBC News cocktail party for about 10 minutes. (That counts as a lifetime in those hurried situations where colleagues, fans, journalists and handlers all want a piece of him.) He was poised and witty, a pleasure to speak with.
Williams sounds very well-informed, andhe's not shy about expressing his strong opinions. He looks at the big picture, all right, but is far more thoughtful than pompous. When we floated possibilities for this year's Time magazine "Person of the Year" designation, he shot down my suggestions as being too parochial and asked pointedly, "Now, does someone in Kansas City really care much about him?" It was a fair question to raise and a totally appropriate one, to boot.
His ability to ask the right questions was only one reason I recognized him as the top performer in broadcast journalism last year. His achievement in 2006 was considerable: Williams showed no fear about succeeding an icon like Brokaw. If anything, he warmed to the challenge.
Now he'll get another daunting moment in the sun on "Saturday Night Live." Williams made a cameo appearance last year on a "Weekend Update" segment, so the turf won't be completely unfamiliar. I bet he'll be terrific. The camera loves him, and he has enough charm to carry it off.
I only hope he rides the wave back to the anchor chair and loosens up a little. America deserves to see this side of him.
Your move, Charlie Gibson.
MEDIA WEB QUESTION OF THE DAY: What advice would you offer Brian Williams when he goes on "Saturday Night Live" next month?
WEDNESDAY PET PEEVE: Why do the networks insist on shoving entertainment down viewers' throats during introductions for the baseball playoffs? I love rock-and-roll as much as anyone, but I'd prefer not to watch thinly disguised promos for the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi.
READERS RESPOND to : "One might say that Rather was sunk by the shoddy work of those around him, or that he cannot know everything, but in the end, he was still responsible for his judgment and what came out of his mouth." Eric Chang
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By Jon Friedman