Move is also sec­ond chance for MSNBC

Brian Wil­liams’ re­turn to han­dle break­ing cov­er­age could help lift the ca­ble chan­nel’s low rat­ings

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Stephen Battaglio

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.”

Richard Drew As­so­ci­ated Press

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.

MSNBC

THE AN­CHOR re­ports from MSNBC on Sept. 13, 2001, two days af­ter the 9/11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

NBC

NBC MAN­AGE­MENT be­lieves Wil­liams has been chas­tened by the public pum­mel­ing he’s been un­der.

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