News anchor Brian Williams returned to the air Tuesday after seven months on ice, but he made no mention of what prompted his absence during his first appearance on his new TV home, MSNBC.
The former anchor of NBC’s flagship “Nightly News” started his new assignment as a live-news anchor on the cable network with a report about Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. Reporting from a news set in New York, Williams first appeared briefly at 3 p.m. Eastern time to set up coverage of the pope’s arrival at Joint Base Andrews in Prince George’s County.
MSNBC ensured that his appearance was low key; it did not promote Williams’ arrival on the network.
After a brief set up about the pope, Williams threw the story to correspondent Chris Jansing at Andrews. He then brought on Maria Shriver, reporting at Catholic University in Northeast D.C., and later MSNBC host Jose Diaz-Balart, also at Catholic University.
Shortly thereafter, Williams led a panel discussion about the pope that included Chuck Todd, the moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press” and the host of new daily MSNBC program.
He did display a flash of the wit that made him a popular guest on talk shows and other entertainment programs. Speaking with correspondent Anne Thompson, who was traveling on the papal flight from Cuba as it arrived at Andrews, Williams jokingly advised Thompson to “gather up her personal belongings,” in the tones of a flight attendant — and then told her he hopes she gets an upgrade on her next flight.
But it was truly business as usual. During Williams’ first 90 minutes on the air — through discussion of the pope’s itinerary and the security surrounding his visit — no one mentioned Williams’ troubles.
The cone of silence was in keeping with NBC’s corporate policy of saying as little as possible about Williams since it agreed to take him back in June, but only after he accepted a demotion to MSNBC and a reported cut in his eight-figure salary.
Williams’ was given a timeout for telling tall tales about his reporting experiences, including one segment that aired in January while he was anchoring the newscast formerly known as “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.”
NBC’s executives, who have declined to offer details about their investigation of Williams, hope that Williams’ name recognition, live-reporting skills and potential star power will help ratings-challenged MSNBC. They have revamped its daytime schedule, jettisoning liberal-oriented talk programs in favor of news.
They have also vowed to feature NBC’s journalists on MSNBC. As such, Williams hosted Todd and Kate Snow in a panel discussion on Tuesday; Snow is an MSNBC anchor and was named anchor of the Sunday edition of “Nightly News” last week.
MSNBC is averaging fewer than 300,000 viewers during daytime hours and is a distant third in the cable-news ratings to Fox News and CNN. Its daytime audience is not quite 0.01 percent of the U.S. population, or less than half the number of people who live in the District.
NBC News chief Andrew Lack, who returned to the company in March to stabilize its news division in the wake of the Williams’ debacle, said Williams will be part of an ensemble. The guiding philosophy, he said in an interview on Monday, is “team play. News is the star. . . [Williams] will be working with the whole team. They’ll hand the ball off to each other.”
This story has been updated.