NBC's Hard News Strategy Helps in Ratings War With ABC

Brian Williams in Moore, Oklahoma.

UPDATED: All "Today's" anchors plus Brian Williams turned up in Oklahoma, as the embattled network's news shows (including a primetime special) beat both Diane Sawyer and "Good Morning America."

This story first appeared in the June 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When a tornado in Moore, Okla., killed 24 people May 20, no TV news division sent more top anchors there than NBC. Nightly News anchor Brian Williams spearheaded an expanded hourlong broadcast May 21 from the site of two flattened schools; Ann Curry also was on hand. And all five Today anchors (Matt Lauer, Savannah Guthrie, Al Roker, Natalie Morales and Willie Geist) were on location for the May 21 show after scrapping plans for a four-day summer road-trip stunt. NBC also preempted a recap episode of top-rated The Voice for a Williams-anchored primetime special that night.

Such a big national story, while clearly tragic, served to showcase NBC talent in a key breaking-news situation, just as the Boston bombing manhunt did a month earlier. And it likely helped Today beat ABC’s Good Morning America by 20,000 viewers in the 25-to-54 demo May 21, while Nightly pulled in 9.1 million total viewers, besting ABC’s World News by more than 1.2 million and the CBS Evening News by over 3 million. Meanwhile, the primetime special won the 8 p.m. hour on Tuesday among total viewers (8.1 million).

The uptick is welcome news for NBC News as it seeks to move past a year that included losing the ratings crown to GMA, an awkward transition from Curry to Guthrie and the cancelation of Williams’ high-profile Rock Center. (In what was viewed as part of Today’s image rehab campaign, Lauer and Guthrie each made self-deprecating appearances on NBC’s Tonight Show in early May, and Guthrie also popped up on The Voice.)

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Observers point out that Today has veered more toward hard news in recent months perhaps in an effort to differentiate the show from GMA. And NBC was the only network to field a primetime special from Moore. (Williams also anchored special reports during Superstorm Sandy the Boston bombing coverage. Rivals at ABC and CBS also anchored rolling live coverage during the Boston manhunt.) But NBC News senior vp Alexandra Wallace, who has oversight of Nightly and Today, says that there is no new mandate afoot to reinvigorate the news division.

“This is what NBC does. When there are big stories, we flood the zone,” Wallace says. “We go from zero to 60 in two seconds.” Hours after the tornado hit, Wallace placed a call to NBC News Group chairman Pat Fili-Krushel to ask for primetime real estate for the news division. “I said, ‘Look, this feels big enough to offer [a primetime special] to the West Coast.’ Pat called the West Coast. And they said great.”

As for Williams, his tenure at Nightly began in 2004 with two national weather disasters -- the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina several months later.

“Brian is incredible in [these situations],” adds Wallace. Williams, who was to present his wife, Bloomberg Radio host Jane Williams, with a prestigious Gracie Award in Los Angeles on May 21, quickly hopped a plane to Oklahoma as Rita Wilson filled in for him. Says Wallace: “When things like [Oklahoma] happen, Brian Williams goes.”