FATE STILL UP IN THE AIR

Prospects are fad­ing that suspended an­chor Brian Wil­liams will re­turn to ‘NBC Nightly News’

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Stephen Battaglio

WASH­ING­TON — Many in the me­dia busi­ness be­lieve that the fu­ture looks bleak for suspended “NBC Nightly News” an­chor Brian Wil­liams.

NBC News ex­ec­u­tives are in the midst of an in­ter­nal re­view into Wil­liams’ re­port­ing, and it will be at least five more weeks be­fore a de­ci­sion is made on whether he re­turns. Wil­liams was benched in Fe­bru­ary af­ter falsely stat­ing that he was in a he­li­copter that was hit by a rocket-pro­pelled grenade dur­ing the 2003 U.S. in­va­sion of Iraq.

Spec­u­la­tion that Wil­liams is a goner heated up last week­end af­ter sev­eral re­ports based on un­named sources said NBC’s re­view found nu­mer­ous sit­u­a­tions in which the an­chor pub­licly em­bel­lished state­ments about his re­port­ing. Some com­peti­tors even sug­gested that NBC was be­hind the leaks as a pres­sure tac­tic to get Wil­liams to re­sign and let the net­work re­duce or get out of its con­trac­tual obli­ga­tion to pay him more than $50 mil­lion over the next five years.

But NBC News Chair­man Andy Lack still hasn’t given up on the idea of bring­ing Wil­liams back. Lack is also in no rush to de­cide, ac­cord­ing to ex­ec­u­tives close to NBC News who were not au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly.

As NBC News pres­i­dent in the 1990s, Lack groomed Wil­liams to be the suc­ces­sor to Tom Brokaw and re­mains close friends with him.

“If there is a path back, he is go­ing to want to find it,” one of the ex­ec­u­tives said. NBC de­clined to com­ment. The chat­ter among mem­bers of the TV news in­dus­try — many of whom were in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., this week­end for the an­nual White House Cor­re­spon­dents’ Assn. din­ner — was that it was dif­fi­cult to see that path. “If there was, don’t you think we’d be hear­ing about it by now?” an NBC News vet­eran said.

One pos­si­ble sce­nario is that Lack vouches for Wil­liams be­cause of their long re­la­tion­ship, puts him back in the an­chor chair but strips him of his man­ag­ing edi­tor ti­tle. Lack would then as­sure the public that he would keep a close watch on Wil­liams. How­ever, no one is bet­ting on that hap­pen­ing.

Lack does have to be mind­ful of his bosses at NBC par­ent Com­cast Corp., who have lit­tle pa­tience for sus­tained bad news and are not afraid to cut their losses. Com­cast demon­strated that last week when the ca­ble gi­ant de­cided to kill its pro­posed $54-bil­lion ac­qui­si­tion

of Time Warner Ca­ble amid heavy crit­i­cism from con­sumer ad­vo­cates.

How­ever, there is no truth to re­ports that sug­gested NBC wanted to get the Wil­liams is­sue re­solved be­fore up­front ad sales for the 2015-16 sea­son begin next week, peo­ple in the in­dus­try said.

Ad­ver­tis­ers who spend about $450 mil­lion a year on the net­work evening news are go­ing to base their com­mer­cial buys on pric­ing and rat­ings guar­an­tees no mat­ter who is in the an­chor chair, the peo­ple said. Many of the prod­ucts ad­ver­tised on the broad­casts are found in medicine cab­i­nets, and their me­dia buy­ers are not par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive about pro­gram con­tent.

Un­der the terms of his sus­pen­sion, Wil­liams is muz­zled by NBC and can­not re­spond to the neg­a­tive sto­ries about fur­ther al­leged prob­lems with his re­port­ing.

Those is­sues, ac­cord­ing to the leaked ac­counts, all have to do with ex­ag­ger­ated and in­ac­cu­rate state­ments Wil­liams has made about his cov­er­age on talk shows, in­ter­views or the ban­quet cir­cuit. An NBC News ex­ec­u­tive said there was no word of any false­hoods that ap­peared on his news­cast.

Even if the re­sults of the re­view leave an open­ing to bring Wil­liams back, Lack also will have to con­sider the ef­fect on his or­ga­ni­za­tion’s morale.

There has been no public state­ment from any­one at NBC News call­ing for Wil­liams to re­turn to the an­chor chair. His sup­port among rank-and-file em­ploy­ees in the di­vi­sion is said to be thin.

There is also the is­sue of un­seat­ing cur­rent an­chor Lester Holt, who has be­come the first solo African Amer­i­can net­work evening news an­chor be­cause of Wil­liams’ sus­pen­sion.

Aside from the his­toric as­pect of Holt’s sta­tus, his col­leagues hold the vet­eran of the news di­vi­sion in high es­teem.

Since Holt took over, “NBC Nightly News” rat­ings have slowly eroded at a rate that one evening news com­peti­tor said should have the net­work “mod­er­ately” con­cerned. The broad­cast has slipped into sec­ond place in to­tal view­ers be­hind “ABC World News Tonight With David Muir” while re­main­ing about even in the ad­ver­tiser-fa­vored 25-to-54 age group. But it has not been the full-out rat­ings col­lapse that could have hap­pened when a popular an­chor is yanked from a pro­gram.

Per­haps an­other sign that Wil­liams’ prospects for com­ing back are fad­ing is that he came up twice in “Satur­day Night Live” cast mem­ber Ce­cily Strong’s mono­logue at the White House Cor­re­spon­dents’ Assn. din­ner.

Up un­til then, NBC’s latenight hosts and com­edy pro­grams, all un­der the su­per­vi­sion of ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Lorne Michaels, had steered clear of mak­ing light of Wil­liams’ sit­u­a­tion. The an­chor had been a popular guest on “The Tonight Show Star­ring Jimmy Fal­lon,” once hosted “SNL” and is friendly with the host of “Late Night With Seth Mey­ers.”

Jeff Rig­gins NBC NewsWire via Getty Images

BRIAN WIL­LIAMS of "NBC Nightly News" re­ports from Iraq in 2007. He was suspended in Fe­bru­ary af­ter falsely stat­ing that he was in a he­li­copter that was hit by a rocket-pro­pelled grenade in 2003.

Trae Pat­ton NBC NewsWire via Getty Images

LESTER HOLT has be­come the first solo African Amer­i­can net­work evening news an­chor.

Bren­dan Smi­alowski AFP/Getty Images

ANDY LACK, chair­man of NBC News, still hasn’t given up on the idea of bring­ing Wil­liams back.

Stephanie Klein-Davis As­so­ci­ated Press

SUSPENDED AN­CHOR Brian Wil­liams of “NBC Nightly News” re­ports from the Vir­ginia Tech cam­pus af­ter a gun­man went on a shoot­ing ram­page in 2007.

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