Fallen Anchor

Why Is Brian Williams Good Enough for MSNBC, but Not NBC?

The suspended anchor is reportedly staying at 30 Rock—but headed to NBC News’s ratings-challenged sibling. How the move raises even more awkward questions.

Monica Schipper/Getty Images for New York Comedy Festival

Suspended NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams—who has spent the past 4½ months off the air, off NBC’s payroll, and off the media grid since being punished by his bosses for embellishing his adventures in journalism—will be returning to the company in a much-diminished role, according to multiple news reports Wednesday night.

Interim anchor Lester Holt, 56, will be named to the Nightly News chair permanently as broadcast television’s first African-American solo anchor, while Williams, also 56, is said to have agreed to resume working as an anchor at MSNBC, NBC News’s ratings-challenged corporate sibling, whose audience is a tiny fraction of the Nightly News program’s. In his heyday, Williams drew as many as 10 million viewers.

The latest in a series of embarrassing corporate cockups at NBC News over the past several years—notably the messy departures of Today show co-anchor Ann Curry, Meet the Press moderator David Gregory, and high-profile Today show executive Jamie Horowitz (after mere weeks on the job last November)—this new development raises yet another awkward question: Why have NBC News Chairman Andy Lack and his boss, NBC Universal chief executive Steve Burke, apparently determined that Williams might be too damaged for the broadcast network but entirely suitable for the cable outlet?

Multiple spokespeople at NBC News and MSNBC were contacted by The Daily Beast on Wednesday night but either didn’t respond or declined to comment. Williams’s agent/attorney, Washington lawyer Robert Barnett—who according to CNN’s Brian Stelter had been spotted in meetings with NBC execs in recent days—didn’t reply to an email seeking comment.

It wasn’t clear if Williams will take a pay cut or will be employed at the cable outlet under the same $50 million, five-year contract he reportedly signed last December after a decade as the No. 1 network news anchor.

For the suave, handsome, witty Williams—who burnished his stardom by making regular appearances on late-night entertainment shows, including Saturday Night Live and Comedy Central’s The Daily Show—it must come as a relief to have his immediate future settled after months of not being permitted to respond publicly, under the terms of his six-month unpaid suspension, to a raft of damaging leaks.

The leaks, which at times seemed orchestrated from within the NBC executive suite at 30 Rockefeller Center, concerned his on- and off-air exaggerations of a helicopter ride during the Iraq War and his anecdotes about witnessing a suicide, seeing a floating body during Hurricane Katrina, and looking Egyptian thugs straight in the eye as they whipped protesters in Egypt’s Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring, among other tall tales reportedly uncovered by an internal NBC News investigation.

Williams initially offered an on-air apology February 4 after being caught in an exaggeration by the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes, when he claimed erroneously on his newscast that during a visit to Iraq in 2003, he was a passenger in a helicopter that was hit and forced to the ground by a rocket-propelled grenade. It turned out that Williams—who told the same war story on CBS’s Late Show With David Letterman as well as on actor Alec Baldwin’s interview program on WNYC radio—was riding in a helicopter that took no fire and was some distance away from the action, according to multiple Iraq War veterans who were on the scene and spoke to Stars and Stripes.

Williams will have his work cut out for him repairing his reputation as a journalist when, as reported, he takes the helm of a new program at MSNBC—where, after a stint covering President Bill Clinton for NBC News, he anchored a nightly prime-time program as part of then-news president Andy Lack’s plan to groom him to succeed longtime Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw—a throne Williams took in December 2004.

Williams dominated the 6:30 p.m. time slot for most of that period, but his audience began to erode in 2014, when Diane Sawyer was still anchoring ABC’s World News Tonight—and the slippage began to accelerate even before Lester Holt stepped in.

Since Williams’s last Nightly News broadcast in early February, Holt has been in a ratings dogfight with World News Tonight anchor David Muir, whose broadcast has periodically beat the NBC program both in total viewership and the key 25-to-54 age demographic on which advertising rates are set.

The anchorman shuffle—which was first reported by CNN and subsequently echoed by The New York Times and Los Angeles Times—is expected to be made official on Thursday by NBC executives, who were once again were caught flatfooted by unplanned leaks.