Brian Williams Defends Ari Emanuel Interview: 'We Had a Spirited, Boisterous Discussion'

Brian Williams

The anchor of "Nightly News" and "Rock Center" also praises future "Tonight Show" host and friend Jimmy Fallon as having "the work ethic of a donkey on a pack ride. He just doesn¹t have any quit in him."

Brian Williams, the anchor and managing editor of NBC’s Nightly News since 2004, is the longest tenured of the evening news anchors. And his broadcast remains an island of stability for NBC News, which at this moment is enduring a drumbeat of negative stories about the personnel moves at the Today show.  Williams – who turns 54 on May 5 – has presided over the top-rated evening news program for 185 consecutive weeks averaging 8.9 million viewers for the first quarter of 2013.

PHOTOS: THR's 35 Most Powerful People in Media 2013

His Rock Center newsmagazine has been less successful in the ratings race, averaging just over 4 million viewers this year. But Williams – a wry talk show guest who makes frequent cameos (30 Rock, Saturday Night Live) still manages to land big gets for the show. They include the first television interview with Apple CEO Tim Cook since the executive took over the company after the passing of Steve Jobs and considerable access to President Obama during the run-up to the 2012 vote — even accompanying him on a two-day campaign tour through seven states in the last few weeks before the election. In March, however, Williams found himself at the center of a Hollywood controversy when it leaked that WME co-CEO Ari Emanuel sent NBC a missive expressing his discontent with Williams’ interview with Emanuel and his two brothers, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel. The appearance was ostensibly to promote Ezekiel’s book Brothers Emanuel: A Memoir of an American Family. But the newsman veered into hard-news questions about the politics of Israel and also asked Ari about his reputation as a Hollywood pit bull. Williams – who once again made The Hollywood Reporter’s 35 Most Powerful People in Media list, talks about that interview, the late-night transition at NBC and what it means to be powerful.

The Hollywood Reporter: How does it feel to be one of the most powerful people in media?

Brian Williams: Power is the last thing that occurs to us in these jobs. I think the list you should do is the least powerful. I would stay overnight at the newsstand prior to that coming out, especially if you do the least powerful walking around the industry believing they’re the most powerful. That would be a fantastic edition. That could be a double issue.

THR: We’ll take that under advisement. Rock Center has bounced around the NBC schedule and is now on Friday nights at 10 p.m., a slot you characterized as the show’s “latest resting place." How do you feel about your time slot?

Williams: We get to program the last hour of primetime for the broadcast week. You can’t stay in this building any later than 11 o’clock on Friday unless you’re doing local news and then they throw you out. We do television every week until the moment when you can’t do anymore. I wish I learned long ago how to at least partially phone it in and maintain the look of "I’ve got this." There’s no other way to do it in my book than to own it, write it. It has to be conceivable. It has to be personal. I’m guilty of not foreseeing that Rock Center would be fully a second job. I’m so bloody proud of Rock Center. I really think the mix has been fantastic. It’s a matter of grinding it out, staying in our lane, working hard for the trust and attention of the viewers. It’s old-fashioned work. And I’m convinced good work gets attention and gets noticed. 

VIDEO: Ari Emanuel Sends Legal Letter to NBC Over Brian Williams Interview

THR: You had a contentious interview with the Emanuel brothers.

Williams: It’s an eye of the beholder thing. I’ve known them all for years in varying degrees. And we had a spirited, boisterous discussion and I will let our work and the profile we aired speak for itself. It was what it was.

THR: You’ve been a guest on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show often. How do you feel about him taking a 12-week hiatus this summer to direct his first movie?

Williams: We’ll make it through if we can understand [substitute host] John Oliver’s thick British accent. I’m not sure it’s good for democracy. But I have made my feelings known to [Stewart] privately.

THR: What do you think of the impending Tonight Show transition from Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon?

Williams: This is family. Both men have been really nice to me. I will never forget my first appearance on Jay Leno's show, sitting there on the couch next to Cher, that is not something you can un-live. I feel a special closeness to Jimmy and [house band] The Roots, they have allowed me to play with them and invited me in. This is really the best of both worlds. As Jay himself says, they like to move when they are in a position of power.

THR: And the show’s move back to New York after decades in Burbank?

Williams: I’m selfishly thrilled that The Tonight Show is coming back to New York. I’m a big broadcast history buff and that is a fabled studio up there on the sixth floor – Jack Parr and Johnny Carson. I think it’s win-win. I think it’s fantastic. Jimmy’s gift is he will keep going until he entertains you. He’s got the work ethic of a donkey on a pack ride. He just doesn’t have any quit in him.