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Brokaw's at top of his game

Tom Brokaw is riding high. And he's dressed appropriately, wearing cowboy boots, while sitting at his desk in his NBC News office.

Brokaw signed a five-year contract over the summer that reportedly pays him $7-million annually and $3-million in General Electric stock. The deal followed CNN's attempt to lure Brokaw away from NBC with a similar salary.

It's difficult to escape Brokaw while visiting New York. Travel down to Times Square between 6:30 and 7 p.m. any weekday and you'll see the NBC Nightly News with Brokaw on a huge (35 by 27 feet) Astrovision screen.

Brokaw doesn't publicly wear a king's crown to go with the cowboy boots, though. After 35 years in the TV news business, he's aware of the changing tides.

"Everything has been working well for our show and the rest of the news division," he says. "A lot of factors are involved in (the show's) popularity: the cable connections (MSNBC, CNBC), Dateline NBC, Today and, of course, the overall popularity of the network, particularly in prime time.

"It wasn't that long ago that I was really disheartened about what was happening here. I thought seriously about leaving."

Brokaw's reference: The disastrous fiasco on Dateline in November 1992 when news producers staged General Motors truck explosions to illustrate the lack of safety devices.

"Things have changed, both for us and for the viewers," he says. "Andy Lack (president of NBC News) has brought back confidence within our organization, and that has transferred to the audience."

Still, Brokaw won't go completely down the humble road when talking about the success of NBC Nightly News, where he also operates as major editor.

"There are solid reasons why our nightly news report is gaining viewers," he says. "I think we've become more people-oriented. Our critics say we have a softer image. I prefer the term friendly."

Some industry analysts say NBC Nightly News is running fewer and longer stories, with less emphasis on government and more human-interest stories.

However, Brokaw points to an ongoing series, "The Fleecing of America," as a story that combines government with people: "It deals directly with something close to the heart of all viewers: how tax dollars are being wasted."

All of which brings up the ongoing network debate about "news purity."

60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt recently lashed out at network news, saying hype and promotion have supplanted old-fashioned reporting and legwork. While Hewitt's comments were aimed mainly at newsmagazines, his criticism has sparked a debate about overall network coverage.

Naturally, Brokaw has an opinion: "Don has created a tempest in a teapot. He seems compelled to make arguments like this every year or so."

Brokaw, whose at-home viewing encompasses cable's C-SPAN and public television's Frontline, would like to get more deeply involved in hourlong documentaries, a news form that has all but disappeared from the network schedules.

Brokaw points to June's Why Can't We Live Together?, in which he probed the problems of residents living in an integrated community in suburban Chicago.

"We want to do more of those. It's a matter of time and worthy subject matter," he says. Brokaw indicates that at least three documentaries are on the drawing board, including one dealing with environmental issues.

Some at NBC think the new five-year contract will be his last for Brokaw, at least as a full-time NBC News anchor. He's 57.

"My main problem is getting away from it all," Brokaw says. "I really can't find time anymore to go pheasant-hunting in my native South Dakota."

He adds with a grin: "Or maybe it's because I'm getting too old to do that."