Andrew Lack, the former and current head of NBC News, started his old job anew last week staring at a monumental dilemma: What to do about Brian Williams?
The anchorman who was the face of NBC News and its signature “Nightly News” was brought low in February after peddling a series of exaggerated stories about his journalistic exploits. NBC suspended Williams without pay for six months and replaced him with Lester Holt, his longtime understudy.
Williams’s timeout officially lasts until August, but the issue is once again on the front burner. Does Lack — a champion of Williams when Lack was running NBC’s news division in the 1990s — take the tainted anchor back or stick with Holt, a veteran newsman who has performed capably since taking over Williams’s vacated chair?
The decision is likely to come soon. Starting next month, NBC and other TV networks will begin negotiating with advertising buyers over the price of commercial airtime for next season’s TV shows. The annual sales period, which involves billions of dollars of ad buys, kicks off with the networks’ “upfront” presentations, a series of razzle-dazzle meetings in which the networks attempt to woo advertisers by touting their fall schedules and trotting out some of their best-known personalities. NBC’s upfront is May 11.
People on both sides of the negotiations, including some at NBC, say it is unlikely that Lack and NBC will go into the upfronts without resolving Williams’s status beforehand. Given the crucial role anchors play in the success of a news broadcast, uncertainty over who will anchor “Nightly News” would hurt NBC’s negotiating position with advertisers.
And at the moment, the betting seems to be against Williams’s return.
“From a ratings point of view, there is no pressure” on NBC to put Williams back on the air, said Catherine Warburton, the chief investment officer at Assembly, a New York-based ad-buying company. “Lester Holt has been doing well. So the advertisers are happy. . . . My personal opinion is, I’d be wary of bringing [Williams] back.”
Her rationale: Williams permanently damaged his credibility with viewers when he told his tall tales, such as coming under attack while reporting in Iraq in 2003. “It was a large misstep,” Warburton said. “Brian Williams is a very engaging personality. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a future. It’s just not necessarily in the area of hard news.”
Warburton’s view is echoed by Billie Gold, vice president and director of programming research at Amplifi, another New York-based ad buyer. “Lester Holt is very advertiser-friendly,” she said. “My thought is, if he’s holding [in the ratings], they won’t take any chances and will leave him in place.”
NBC’s evening newscast — known as “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams” until his name was scrubbed with his suspension — was nearly unbeatable in the ratings with Williams as its anchor. It was the most-watched news program on television for 288 consecutive weeks, dating to September 2009.
But NBC’s dominant position was eroding even before Williams fell on his face. ABC’s “World News Tonight,” anchored by David Muir, had slowly closed the audience gap over the past year. In late March, “World News Tonight” finally surpassed its rival, squeaking past “Nightly” and Holt in the weekly Nielsen tallies for the first time in more than five years. “World News” won for a second time in a row last week as well, figures released Tuesday showed.
Whether that constitutes a trend or just a momentary slip for NBC could factor into the anchor decision, Gold said. “If the numbers trend downward, it might be a different story” for keeping Holt. But even then, she added, it doesn’t make the case for Williams. “It would be hard to bring Brian Williams back,” she said. “I think he’s lost a little legitimacy.”
The rating loss was “a cause for concern, but not for panic” at NBC because the race had been close for several months and traditionally tightens in the spring, said one of the network’s executives. But this executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, acknowledged that the loss of the ratings lead, however brief, could complicate the anchor calculations.
Lack’s decision will be guided by “reams of [audience] research” assessing viewers’ reaction to Williams’s return or Holt’s continuation, he said. It will also require the approval of Lack’s boss, NBC Universal chief executive Steve Burke.
There’s another moving part: an NBC News internal investigation into Williams’s statements.
The investigation began in February and is led by Richard Esposito, the senior executive producer of NBC News’s investigative unit. NBC hasn’t said when it will be completed, but its findings could put the news division in an awkward position. If Esposito’s final report is damning, NBC News would essentially have to ignore it or play it down to restore Williams to his old job. A milder report would be more helpful to Williams but could pose its own public relations problem; viewers might see it as a whitewash, given widespread reporting about Williams’s misstatements. (Williams’s attorney, Robert Barnett, declined to comment for this story).
There are also NBC’s internal dynamics to consider. Lack and Williams have a long professional association and relationship. During his first run as chairman of NBC News, from 1993 to 2001, Lack made Williams the lead anchor on NBC’s cable news start-up, MSNBC, setting Williams on the path to succeeding Tom Brokaw as “Nightly News” anchor when Brokaw retired in 2004.
Brokaw is another wild card. He reportedly has a chilly relationship with Williams and might not be enthusiastic about supporting his return. In his first extended remarks about Williams, Brokaw said Monday night that he “had a cordial relationship” with Williams and that the controversy surrounding him was “very, very serious.”
If Williams doesn’t resume anchoring “Nightly News,” it is not clear what will become of him. He has already hosted a prime-time newsmagazine, “Rock Center,” that was canceled in 2013. He isn’t known for his interviewing skills, making him an unlikely choice as a host on NBC’s “Today” or “Meet the Press.”
But he’s also famous, charming and has a long track record with viewers. “We have an enormous talent here,” said the NBC executive, speaking of Williams. “He has skills no one else has. Can we really get rid of him? The next question is, if we do, what if he shows up elsewhere” on a rival network?