After bringing viewers the news for nearly 23 years, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw signed off Wednesday expressing gratitude for what he got in return.
“Thanks for all that I have learned from you,” he said at the end of his final “Nightly News” broadcast, his voice wavering just a bit. “That’s been my richest reward.”
Brokaw reminded his audience how “we’ve been through a lot together, through dark days and nights, and seasons of hope and joy.
“Whatever the story, I had only one objective: to get it right,” he said, adding he was “always mindful that your patience and attention didn’t come with a lifetime warranty.”
He closed with “You’ll see Brian Williams tomorrow night; I’ll see you along the way.”
While Brokaw was saying his good-byes, Peter Jennings was praising him on ABC as “a competitor in the best sense, which in our trade means, when he beats us on a story, it is usually the result of enterprise.”
Over on CBS, Dan Rather said, “For more than 30 years, I have known Tom as friend and competitor who has earned the respect of his audience, and his colleagues, myself included.” Then to Brian Williams, Rather added, “Welcome to the neighborhood.”
Williams, long groomed as Brokaw’s successor, takes over “Nightly News” with Thursday’s broadcast. He begins at the top of the ratings, where “Nightly News” has reigned since 1997.
Speaking Thursday on the “Today” show, Williams, 45, said he does not expect big changes in the program. He said it excelled “because it kind of skews to middle America. It calls balls and strikes right down the middle.”
“I don’t want to pretend this will be a day like any other day,” he added. “I feel the weight of history.”
Brokaw’s departure has been the object of ceremony the past few days, both from the press at large and on his own network, which last week aired a two-hour Brokaw retrospective on “Dateline NBC.”
Wednesday morning, he appeared on “Today,” which he once anchored, for a tribute (and a champagne toast) from current hosts Katie Couric and Matt Lauer, who paraphrased a familiar song: “Nobody does it better and no one ever has.”
“Even as we speak,” Brokaw joked during the segment, “people are changing the name plate on my door.”
Rather's departure next
The much-awaited shift at NBC was briefly upstaged last week by the surprise announcement that Dan Rather would be departing “The CBS Evening News” anchor chair in March, after 24 years. (No successor to the 73-year-old Rather, who will continue on “60 Minutes,” has yet been named.)
Those changes, after two decades of stability, will leave only ABC’s Peter Jennings among the old-timers.
Brokaw, a South Dakota native who joined NBC in 1966, was White House correspondent from 1973-76, encompassing the Watergate years. He anchored “Today” from 1976-81.
He began his “Nightly News” run in April 1982, sharing the anchor title with Roger Mudd, who reported from Washington in a partnership that NBC brass hoped would revive the glory years of the Huntley-Brinkley team.
It didn’t, either with ratings or chemistry between Mudd and Brokaw. In September 1983, Brokaw emerged as solo anchor — just days after Peter Jennings began soloing on ABC’s “World News Tonight.”
Ups and downs of network news
As Brokaw marked his 30th anniversary with NBC in 1996, he recalled the precipitous ups and downs at the network where he stuck it out and prospered.
“I never expected the waves would be quite as steep as they were,” he admitted. “But even in the worst of times, it was better than anything I thought I’d ever have in life.”
During a most chaotic era — in 1981, with NBC’s prime-time ratings in a tailspin — Brokaw almost leaped to ABC News, whose new boss, Roone Arledge, had come courting.
“I came very, VERY close to going,” Brokaw said. “So close that I went out to dinner with (wife) Meredith and said, ‘I’m gonna do this,’ and she went to bed thinking it was a good idea. Then I sat up and drank some scotch and smoked a cigar and stared out the window for several hours.”
What he saw, of course, was his future at NBC — which, as Brokaw would be the first to point out, hasn’t ended yet.