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Rock Center With Brian Williams Interviewby Pattye Grippo    

Steve Capus, David Corvo, Rome Hartman, and Brian Williams

This is an interview with Steve Capus, President NBC News; David Corvo, Senior Executive Producer; Rome Hartman, Executive Producer and Brian Williams, Managing Editor and Anchor on October 24, 2011 about the show Rock Center with Brian Williams.

Steve Capus:
I hope you can tell by now we're awfully excited about this launch. We're one week away. Next Monday, 10:00 pm we will launch Rock Center with Brian Williams. This is the first time in nearly two decades that a news division has attempted to launch a new primetime news magazine. We think that the time is right to do so. We think given everything that's happening all around the world and in the United States that there is a need for another outlet for quality journalism and NBC News is uniquely situated to take on such an ambitious project.

We would not have done this were it not for our great faith in none other than Brian Williams to be the host of this broadcast. Brian is somebody I've known for an awfully long time and I have absolute faith that he's going to do a brilliant job in this. We are going to launch the program. We will be on live. We will do a news magazine program and you'll hear from Rome and David about particulars of format and things like that.

But we want to be a showcase home for quality journalism, stories that matter, great storytelling. And we are going to call on the considerable resources and talents of people all around this organization to do that work for us. Rather than turning to a handful of correspondents who are dedicated to the broadcast we're opening it up to everybody within NBC News which I think already differentiates us from some of the other programs that are out there.

This news division is in a unique place. I look around and see in the trades and everywhere I look articles about how news organizations are challenged on the business side, how people are closing operations, how they're laying off people. We're in a different mode and that's - I think we can say that, you know, uniquely so.

We're growing at a time when the news operations are challenged. We are committed to staffing this the right way. We have bureaus all around the world who will contribute to this broadcast. And thanks to the considerable strength of this news division I feel great about how we will be - what we will be able to pull off.

In terms of what we're going to do we know we're not going to sit here and predict for you that we're going to be a smash hit right out of the starting blocks. In fact I actually think it's going to be the opposite; we're not doing this as a ratings play. We're doing this as an attempt to give NBC News a new outlet, an important outlet in primetime.

But we know that the business is challenged right now and we're not kidding ourselves; we know it's going to take some time to get established. Our marching orders from an incredibly supportive corporate suite here are very simple; get on, get established and do great work that we're all proud of. Number 1, I like having that kind of support. Our new bosses that came from Comcast are very, very supportive. And we spoke in the very early days of their time here about doing just this broadcast. So they're thrilled and we enjoy their considerable support. But we know that this is a long term proposition that w want to get on there and we want to establish this broadcast, make it part of American society and hopefully draw viewers along the way and deliver on the promises that we talk about today. So we're very, very excited.

David Corvo:
Picking up on what Steve said I think one of the questions we're asked a lot is why this program and why now. And one of the important reasons is we were invited to do the program by our new bosses who came to NBC News and said a few months ago when they took over and said what do you guys want to do? What car is missing in your garage that you'd like to have? And we said this. We want to do a news magazine that's a multistory magazine and that is not quite been tried for a number of years. I mean, we obviously have Dateline but that's an hour or single subject program.

When you look at all the news over the last year and a half or so from, you know, Japan, to Gabby Giffords story, to the hurricanes, all the places Brian has been, frankly, in the last 18 months, you know, these are stories that some of which we were able to do hours on but some of them were timely stories that we really didn't have a great primetime vehicle for and now we do. This is not a newscast; it's a new magazine. But it has the opportunity to be more timely and more relevant and more responsive to what's in the news, what's in the national conversation then an hour-long documentary style show which requires a lot more preparation and many more weeks in production.

So it's complementary to what we're doing. And I think that it gives us a chance to show off really the whereas of NBC News so to speak, all the great talent we have across the division, CNBC included, MSNBC included of course where you can really see the broad range of talents and interests that our news division has. And I think that it wouldn't work without Brian, frankly, that's one of the first things we told our bosses. Because Brian has that broad range of curiosity and interests from the most serious story to some of the silly ones that probably came out of New Jersey.

And also, he had a lot of time on his hands and so we thought well what the hell, let's put the guy to work. So we think you'll see a different kind of magazine that will be fronted by one person with a curious and intense relationship with the news and the trust of his audience. And I think he'll guide viewers through a wide range of material and the format of which Rome Hartman can discuss a little bit.

Rome Hartman:
I think when people tune in on Monday night next week, we hope that there will be a couple of things that stand out about this program primarily the talent that's involved on the air. And, you know, I really think that you could take our Mt. Rushmore, our roster of correspondents and stars and hold them up against any other lineup that any news organization could put forward. Starting with Brian of course who is the preeminent television newsman in America, Harry Smith and Kate Snow who are our workhorse correspondents, great storytellers; the NBC News All-Stars as Steve mentioned.

You know, we're really drawing on the best correspondents and the best corp of correspondents in the business here; everybody from Richard Engel to Nancy Snyderman, Natalie Morales from the Today Show, people that are signed up to contribute their best work to this broadcast. And then a roster of special correspondents starting with Meredith Vieira and with Ted Koppel and you think about that lineup and I don't think there's anybody in America or on the planet that could match that. And we're able to draw on the best correspondents at NBC News and the correspondents that are out covering stories. The other thing that's a signature of the program is that it's going to be live from Studio 3B every Monday at 10 o'clock which means we can be responsive to events that warrant our attention.

That doesn't mean we're going to be jumping at every shiny thing but it means that when news breaks that is worth our attention we're on it and NBC News is uniquely qualified to do that. It also brings an energy just the fact of being live and being live from a control room instead of put together in an edit room three days earlier brings an energy which I think is going to be palpable; I think people are going to feel it in the audience. That's certainly our goal.

And when there's news NBC correspondents are ready to do the best job of covering it. But there are a lot of NBC correspondents who also have another tool in their kit that really don't have a chance to use those tools, the storytelling tools or the long form tools. Ron Allen is a great example. He's a great fireman, he's a great coverage guy who you see on Nightly News, you see on the Today Show. He's got a couple of stories that really need to be told on this broadcast and we're going to give him an outlet to do it.

And as I said at the beginning what brings this all together is that you have Brian as both the ringmaster and the curator of the stories for this program and the leader of the band as it were. I think that's the thing that I'm most excited about. And the chance to work with Brian over these last few months and going forward is the thing that's going to be the most fun for me. And he happens to be sitting on the couch across from us.

Brian Williams:
Thank you very much. This has been the neat trick of designing this. To Rome's great consternation he's dealing with, as I call myself, a day of air dog. And I have dealt with a daily deadline all my life in this business. So this is a new discipline and concentration for me. But right before coming to this floor and this room I was on the phone with Rome having written a piece for the broadcast; we don't know if it'll go Night 1 or not. And, you know, I'm finding a way to work all this in. My next meeting is the daily rundown meeting for tonight's Nightly News.

I'll just echo everything everyone has said. I'm in the terrific position of working with all the people you've heard from. To have Steve's leadership and believe me he's cleared the decks for whatever we have needed. I mentioned in a few other pieces the Comcast guys who came into this company and this was the first order of business and it was enormously flattering and just reassuring about their intention.

And to have Rome in the slot for this means that I can go off and do my day job; he has a kind of Sully-like calm about him and that's a really good thing in his job. His main job has been hiring up and getting this staff up and running while, you know, the building of offices and cubicles for all these people goes on around them they're all busy at television.

I've used the expression before that you look around this news division suddenly and it's Cooperstown. And in a gender-neutral sense that's really what we put together here. Finally to underscore what Steve has said, can't say this often enough, no one has mentioned any kind of bracket for success or standards for that. All we've been told is to go do the broadcast we'd like to watch, the broadcast we've always wanted to work on. There's no benchmark, there's no numbers, there's no ratings it's just we're living in our hour. So unless somebody has a follow up here.

Steve Capus:
That dovetails into another point that I want to make on this call today which is we know that this broadcast is going to be moving to a different timeslot come February of next year that we are going to launch Monday nights at 10 o'clock. We can't tell you what night we're going to be on in come February but Monday at 10 o'clock has already been spoken for and Smash will be going in there on the NBC Network. And we're going to go to a different spot.

And I wanted that to be put out there now because as I said earlier I don't have high expectations for the ratings performance of this. And this is not a ratings play that we're going after. We're going after getting established and that's what the first couple of months are all about. But regardless of what happens on the ratings side we're going to move and that's already been set in motion. So I just wanted to make sure that everybody knew that going in.

Question:
Brian, every time I see you on Rock Center With Brian Williams you just have me laughing out of my seat every time you make a cameo on there.

Brian Williams:
Thank you. While that doesn't speak to towering credibility in a primetime evening news magazine those are what I call the extracurriculars that kind of make life more fun, so thank you.

Question:
You guys have quite the all-star cast of correspondents lined up for the show such as Ted Koppel, Meredith Vieira, Matt Lauer and Ann Curry to name a few. Who else would you want to have on the show, reporters past and present, if given the chance?

Brian Williams:
I will say only cryptically and Steve knows this, I'm not done. And we're not done. There are still some people on the whiteboard in my head that are out there and who I think could really, really turn some heads.

Steve Capus:
And all I would say I'm well aware of Brian's wish list and I think we've accomplished much of that so far with some of the names you've mentioned and some of the people we've got working on stories all ready, people like Richard Engel. But, you know, I think we're not done yet in terms of staffing up for this. We want to make sure that we bring in a couple of other players. But I have to just underscore that, you know, we're going to look all across the organization for great stories and if that's, you know, a guy like David Faber coming up with a story from CNBC then we're going to have a home for that kind of reporting. And you think about the worldwide organization that is NBC News there's a tremendous amount of material available to us right away. And it's our job to make sure that it gets showcased in the right manner.

Question:
I saw online that the set is going to be a posh man cave. Those are usually words you don't hear put together. Was there a reason for this decision or like is it supposed to set the mood for the show?

Rome Hartman:
This is a live program done from a studio in Rockefeller Center. And it is a classy, beautiful set that you can shoot in a variety of ways. I think it's built to accommodate the variety of things that we want to do whether it's a live interview with a big name interview, whether it's a debrief with a correspondent or whether it's talking to somebody who's out in the field. The set was designed not as a man cave but as a way to give the flexibility for the content that we intend to have on the program.

Brian Williams:
You'll see one wing of it tonight. Nightly News will debut from one-half of it. We're all going to be in one studio. This is one of the great studio sound stages in this building, Studio 3B, a previous home of a number of our broadcasts including Nightly News and Today over the years. So we decided to just start fresh with my day job and my night job. It is a beautiful working television studio. One end will be Rock Center; the other end is Nightly News.

David Corvo:
As we know nobody goes home humming the set it's a very utilitarian, very handsome set but we've got to deliver the content and Nightly already does and this new program will too.

Question:
Brian, is this program a showcase for you or not? How do you see it?

Brian Williams:
My bosses are allowed to say whatever they wish. I'm going to have the role on this thing that I think you can envision and imagine and foresee. This is going to be about the stories we air and the people telling them. In some cases that'll be me but in most cases it's going to be this correspondent corp we've been talking about. And obviously these are friends and coworkers of mine and at the conclusion of the story they tell we're going to probably sit around and talk about it. And there will be questions that will kind of pop into all of our heads as we watch these pieces. So, you know, it's got my name in it and all that and they've gone ahead and built this beautiful place. And I don't know if I'm best equipped to answer that.

Steve Capus:
WI can answer that in that a couple things. One is Brian's fingerprints will be all over this broadcast. He is in on the decisions about what stories we are giving a green light to. He will do original reporting for this news magazine. He will have a very significant role in determining how we handle the stories getting into them, coming out of them, talking with the correspondents who, if he doesn't report the story, if it's Harry or Meredith Brian will guide the conversation that will go along with their reporting.

And we will find the opportunities for it to be very clear that this is an hour of news anchored by Brian. When we were talking about doing this in the first place we said we want to build around Brian. And then it became abundantly clear that, you know, we have the strongest news organization going so why not and Brian has been very good at Nightly News at making that a broadcast that is open to everybody. You saw Michelle Caruso-Cabrera from CNBC on last week from Greece contributing to Nightly News. That's not the way network news used to operate. And Brian has helped change the tone at Nightly and you're going to see that as well on Rock Center.

Question:
How did you land Koppel? And would you be interested in hiring Dan Rather?

Rome Hartman:
Ted Koppel was interested in this when he heard that NBC News was creating this. I think like a lot of other people in the industry he thought the prospect of NBC News creating a primetime news magazine led by Brian and with the stated ambition of doing original wide-ranging journalism there just aren't many places where that kind of work is being done.

And he was interested in playing a part in it. He's not going to be an every week contributor; he's a special correspondent. And we're thrilled to have him. But I think he was interested in it for a lot of the same reasons that people within and outside NBC News are interested in it, producers, correspondents and observers, is that this is an exciting project and a lot of people are excited to be involved in it.

Steve Capus:
It was a pretty short set of questions. He wanted to know what our commitment was to quality journalism and were we on board with him contributing to that effort. And it wasn't - it didn't take much more discussion than that. When he heard what we had in mind and he heard the description of it he said sign me up. And we're thrilled to have him.

Brian Williams:
And it's been very exciting around here. We're hiring people to put journalism on television. And you don't get to start something like this more than once or twice in your lifetime. So I think to paraphrase what Rome and Steve have said I think Ted was drawn to that.

Steve Capus:
As was Meredith Vieira, as was Harry Smith, as was Kate and Richard Engel. You know, we've got the best war time correspondent going right now in Richard Engel. You see his reporting every night and every morning on Today. We have been looking for the right outlet to allow him to expand that kind of reporting and we've got one now.

Question:
Can you unequivocally say that Rock Center is not pursuing Amanda Knox or Casey Anthony?

Steve Capus:
I don't want to rule any stories out except stories about which there's nothing smart to say. If there's nothing smart to say then we can walk past it. But if there's a smart way of doing any story we'll be interested in doing it. Obviously Dateline does a terrific job of covering those kinds of stories and of doing, you know, real life crime stories. So it would be silly for us to pursue those kinds of stories on a routine or a regular basis. Dateline is great at it and we're not trying to duplicate what they do. But we're not ruling any stories out or the only stories that we'll skip are the ones where there's nothing smart to say.

Question:
So that means you're not pursuing them or is there something smart to say about either of them?

Steve Capus:
The way this news division works is I think perhaps a little bit different than others. If I have 10 people pursuing any of those stories that you just described they'll pursue them on behalf of NBC News and then we'll make a determination about what the best home is. One of the reasons that NBC News is different than the others is we're not battling each other for these stories. You know, the Today Show works very well with Dateline every single day. And if we make the determination that that's a better Dateline story or that's a better Today Show story or Nightly or Rock Center so be it.

It's not that, you know, if there's a booking out there that we make a determination beforehand that this is only going to be for Rock Center or not. So that is one of the reasons that we're actually better as a united news division than we are as smaller entities under the umbrella.

Question:
I'm looking at Friday's ratings and the top rated show on Friday was 20/20, but it was a news magazine show about Mariah Carey's babies and about Bernie Madoff's daughter in law. It seems to me like one reason why we haven't seen a network establish a new news magazine in so long is because it's so hard to get good ratings for stories that are just about good journalism. So what gives you guys the sense that you can make a difference here when so many other shows like Dateline sort of started more serious and then kind of became crime of the week, you know, scandal of the week, celebrity death of the week shows?

Brian Williams:
We have a different charge. That's never been part of our charge; it's not why we were commissioned. And I just urge you to begin watching Halloween night and stay with us. Steve was right, our charge was to put together the best broadcast of its type we could, get on the air and stay there. And we're going to do, you know, watch; we're going to do interesting stories that are supremely unrelated to what you just mentioned.

Steve Capus:
I wish we had been on the air January 1 of this year because Brian anchored the only primetime news magazine effort tied to the Arizona shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. And we did that the day after the shooting. Brian was the first network anchor to originate from Cairo when the Arab Spring started going down there. You know, we've had Lester Holt with Brian in places like Libya. We were in Japan with a major commitment.

And, you know, news magazines traditionally do a lot of things very, very well but doing a broadcast that is both topical and committed to long form quality journalism is a little bit of a different mandate than I've seen from some of the others. And so we think there is an opening right now. I look to the fact that Nightly News, you know, I used to be the executive producer of Nightly News and for years I would face the same question which is oh it's a dying genre; when are one of the networks going to get rid of it? But I'm sitting here now in October of 2011 looking at a Nightly News broadcast that is up year over year. And what is that built around but coverage of all these important stories that are happening on our watch.

Rome Hartman:
One other thing that I think is an interesting example. You know, Brian is the managing editor of this program. And it will reflect his sensibility. I've said this ought to feel like Brian's playlist. And he has the frequent flyer miles to show one thing about his news judgment. He was on his way to London to cover the Royal wedding, got there, turned around and went to Tuscaloosa, Alabama and covered that devastating tornado there. NBC News did a great job on both of those stories, okay. But this is going to reflect Brian's sensibility. He's not the managing editor of this program for nothing. And that was a very specific editorial choice. And I think that's what's going to be reflected by a lot of our choices too.

Brian Williams:
I would add to what Steve said. Ten o'clock Eastern Time the night the situation in Cairo went to hell Richard Engel and I are on a hotel balcony trying to stay back from the railing as to not get hit by ricochets while this gun battle went on below us. We were on MSNBC all night. Boy, it would have been great to additionally have a broadcast network platform at 10 o'clock Eastern Time because that's what we were doing. And for those watching it made for some incredible television I think.

Question:
That's why we have sort of a new platform being created. Because the other thing that occurred to me was, you know, the Dateline brand seems pretty malleable. And you have a 24-hour cable news channel. If you want to get serious journalism on you already have a couple pretty good platforms.

Steve Capus:
Right. And we also already had two hours of the Today Show in the leading position in morning television. We decided to two more hours through the years and it continues to do very, very well. You know, we're not content to just sit back and take the considerable success that we've had and just send the checks upstairs to corporate. We're actually reinvesting in news. And to be able to launch a new news magazine with this as its stated purpose we actually think is a good thing.

And I note that there's a piece that just came out today in Ad Age talking about the higher advertising rates that are being charged for this broadcast. And that's something that none of us sitting around this table get into; this is the part of the business side of it. But I am incredibly encouraged that even before we've gone on the air there's such a demand for this broadcast in the advertising world. And that's due to the positioning of what the broadcast is going to be about, what we've said it will be about. And that's already drawing advertiser interest. And I think that's a great sign.

Question:
Do you plan to keep addressing Ted Koppel by his last name?

Brian Williams:
You're speaking of the elevator promo. I don's know why we kind of came up with that on the fly. It seemed perfectly appropriate. We actually realized the day we gathered to have a little fun and shoot those promos the last time I had seen Ted in the flesh I had found a way to get into what was then still Saddam Hussein International Airport in Baghdad, probably invasion plus three days.

I slept on the floor of the Baghdad version of the learn to fly executive aviation terminal under a poster of Saddam Hussein on a cement floor. There were firefights going around all over the airport, planes were on fire. But when you got to get some rack time you've got to get some rack time. And I woke up hearing the distinctive voice, Williams, standing over me in his battle gear. Very surprised having embedded with the third ID to find that we had entered quote, their airport. So that was the last time I saw Ted before the elevator promo. Boy, I'd rather have him with us than against us. What a warrior, what a competitor, what a journalist. And that's among the most thrilling developments in the development of this broadcast.

Question:
You are launching on Halloween. Did that enter anybody's consciousness at all? And are you aware that Halloween happens to be Dan Rather's birthday?

Brian Williams:
It'll be a little tight getting uptown from the Greenwich Village parade for me. But, yes, we're aware that we're launching on Halloween. And as I said on the Gayle King show we are actually counting on that kind of post-candy euphoria because those of us who are parents know that you send the kids to bed and then go through the bag. So we're kind of counting on people who need a good hour-long sit down to join us that night.

Question:
David, you said that Comcast invited you to put on this show. They asked you what car was missing from your garage. If Rock Center were a car what kind of car would it be?

David Corvo:
It would have to be American made of course. A high performance car. It's a Ford, it's not a Lincoln.

Question:
Since this is going to be a news magazine do you plan on having celebrity interviews or stories on the show?

Steve Capus:
If there's something smart to say then any story is fair game and any, you know, prominent figure is fair game. I'm not, you know, we want to have interviews with and profiles of people who are interesting and people who have interesting things to say or interesting careers to follow or power that they're exercising in interesting ways. We're not dealing in categories we're dealing in stories. And I'm not saying this category is in and this category is out; I just want good stories, good original stories.

David Corvo:
I don't think you'll see a lot of, you know, celebs promoting their next movie kind of thing, you know, coming out on that Friday.

Rome Hartman:
Sitting in front of the movie poster.

David Corvo:
Yeah, that's the kind of thing that's not really an interesting profile that probably would stay away from. That's left better to Access Hollywood and so forth.

Question:
Do you have any examples of who like would be a good fit or who you'd like to have on the show?

Rome Hartman:
I think you should tune in and watch. We like our story list. I'm not trying to be coy honestly. But I think I have examples of the kinds of stories that we're interested in doing. And certainly profiles and big name interviews are among the kind of stories that we want to do. I think it's probably not fair to either us or the interview subjects to say, you know, this is our wish list.

Steve Capus:
And you maybe see Brian turning the table on some of the people who are in our business. You know, there might be because that would be interesting, that would be smart, it would be unique to showcase that from time to time. But, you know, Rome is right, check us out, see how we do.

Question:
Rome, give me a general idea because we don't have yet of a typical show might have how many reports, like might have three or might have four if it's typical and what would be the length range of a typical report?

Rome Hartman:Rather than a format that's sort of three 12-minute pieces and a cloud of dust what we want it had stories be the length that they deserve to be rather than because there's some preordained timeslot that they have to fit into. We want to have a flexible format. I do think that you'll see stories of different lengths in almost every hour. Some that take a little longer to tell, some that are a little shorter and hopefully dictated by the subject matter and by the quality of the material that we have rather than because they have to fit into a particular hole.

Question:
Any short signature finals?

Rome Hartman:
If this program exhibits Brian's news sets then there will be really ambitious hard news stuff but there will also be stuff that's more observational or maybe a little cheekier or a little lighter because that's, you know, Brian has a very eclectic story set. You see it some in Nightly News. And hopefully we'll have the opportunity to do that. So, yeah, will there be shorter pieces that Brian reports in addition to the big signature interviews and things that he does? Absolutely, we're looking to do that.

This is a television program but we also mean to have a really vibrant online life. And on the Website and on our program app we're going to have both the stories that we put on the television program and sometimes put those stories up before they actually go on the television program. But we're going to have a lot of extra stuff as well both related to the pieces and sometimes things that are just meant for a digital life.

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