Move is also second chance for MSNBC
Brian Williams’ return to handle breaking coverage could help lift the cable channel’s low ratings
NEW YORK — Brian Williams and MSNBC have a lot invested in second chances.
Williams was officially demoted by NBC News on Thursday for false statements he has made on and off the air regarding his coverage in the field. He will lose his anchor chair on “NBC Nightly News,” one of the most prestigious and high-paying jobs in television news, but will be kept on handling breaking coverage on cable channel MSNBC.
Williams will have a much smaller audience — MSNBC averaged 301,000 viewers in May compared with the roughly 7.5 million who watched “NBC Nightly News” each night during the month — and a salary that pays him significantly less than the $10-million-a-year contract he signed in December, according to network executives familiar with the terms of the deal.
The move from broadcast to cable is a penalty for Williams. But NBC News Chairman Andy Lack is also using it as an opportunity. He hopes there’s enough goodwill toward Williams built up over his 22 years on national TV that the newsman can lift the modest ratings on MSNBC, said people in the company familiar with the moves who were unauthorized to speak publicly.
In recent years, MSNBC has devoted many of its programming hours to liberal-leaning opinion shows. Those programs did well in the ratings when President Obama was a rock star candidate who energized the political left. But as the president’s popularity ebbed, so has the channel’s audience. MSNBC fell into third place this year behind CNN and leading cable news outlet Fox News.
The NBCUniversal network was once powered by the buzzworthy but hard-to-control personality of Keith Olbermann, who was fired in 2011. The channel turned to more wonk-ish on-air talents such as Ronin Farrow, who was pulled from the lineup after one year, and Chris Hayes, whose low ratings have delivered a weak lead-in for Rachel Maddow, the most
popular MSNBC host in prime time.
The ratings have languished. Fox had an average of 985,000 daily viewers last month, up 9% from the yearearlier period. CNN was in second place with 440,000 daily viewers, up 42%; while MSNBC lagged behind with 301,000, down 9% year over year.
Lack has made it clear since his return to a leadership role at NBC News in March that he wants MSNBC to focus on covering live breaking news during the day. Williams, who was the principal anchor for MSNBC when it first launched in 1994, will become the nerve center of that effort. There are no plans to give him his own prime-time program.
Lester Holt, who also spent years honing his anchor skills on MSNBC, is replacing Williams as anchor of “NBC Nightly News” after filling in during his suspension.
When coming to a decision on Williams, Lack considered the severity of the anchor’s misdeeds — erroneously telling the “NBC Nightly News” audience Jan. 30 that he was in a Chinook helicopter shot down by enemy fire during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and making false statements about his work reporting in the field on talk shows and other venues. But Lack took into the account Williams’ years of service at the network.
“Brian now has the chance to earn back everyone’s trust,” Lack said in a statement. “His excellent work over 22 years at NBC News has earned him that opportunity.”
There is also a belief among NBC’s top management that Williams has been changed by the public pummeling he’s been under since the controversy broke.
“He is a chastened, different man than the last time you saw him on the ‘NBC Nightly News’ four months ago,” said one senior executive involved in the discussions.
Williams will address the events that have upended his successful television news career in an interview with colleague Matt Lauer scheduled to air Friday on NBC’s “Today.”
Jonathan Klein, the former president of CNN, called the MSNBC arrangement “an elegant solution” that can help both the Williams and the struggling channel.
“It gives the audience a chance to get over Brian’s mistakes and I think they will,” he said. “And it gives MSNBC a proven star with news credentials and experience who can help them find a new identity which they are searching.”
Although the challenge for cable news is drawing in viewers when there is no breaking coverage — something CNN has addressed with its move toward series and documentary programming — MSNBC has failed to attract audiences even when big stories are happening.
“Your biggest audience is always the big breaking news,” Klein said. “So they are reasserting their reputation as a place to turn to and it’s a good start and Brian will be excellent at that — it’s what he does best.”
Andrew Heyward, a media consultant and former president of CBS News, does not believe that MSNBC viewers will perceive Williams as damaged goods.
“I think they’ll see it for what it is,” he said. “I think they understand that Brian is paying a price for a big mistake, but what will kick in is ‘I still like him and will stay to watch him.’ ”
Although the move may be a sound business solution for NBC News, there are observers troubled by the message it sends about journalistic standards.
“If you are known for playing fast and loose with the truth, then you forfeit your credibility and your right to be on the air,” said Judy Muller, a USC journalism professor who was a longtime correspondent for ABC News. “I don’t see how putting Brian Williams at MSNBC helps to build that channel up, particularly when it comes to hard news.... This is like saying that it is all right for a fireman to set an occasional arson fire.”
But Richard Wald, a former top news executive and now a journalism professor at Columbia University, said the public tends to be forgiving.
“Nobody will ever forget this,” he said. “It will always be raised as an issue, but people have a certain amount of understanding for human frailty and a willingness to allow people to overcome setbacks.”
BRIAN WILLIAMS, left, joins Tom Brokaw, his predecessor as anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” prior to Brokaw’s last broadcast Dec. 1, 2004. Williams had honed his anchor skills working at MSNBC.
THE ANCHOR reports from MSNBC on Sept. 13, 2001, two days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
NBC MANAGEMENT believes Williams has been chastened by the public pummeling he’s been under.