UPDATED throughout: NBCU is announcing tomorrow it has reached that expected agreement in which Brian Williams remains at the company but does not return to the anchor chair at NBC Nightly News. Nightly News fill-in Lester Holt will be named permanent anchor, making him the first African-American solo anchor of a broadcast network’s evening newscast, informed sources said once again.
NBCU’s gameplan for both newsmen had been reported by various outlets for some time, and again last week (and again mentioned here yesterday). But that did not stop some outlets this evening from boasting they posted first on various elements of this saga, when word leaked NBCU had finally crossed all the T’s and would make it official tomorrow, reflecting how itchy journalists tracking this Williams drama have become as they watched it play out over an agonizing four months.
When NBC execs held an off-site meeting Tuesday, buzz erupted that an announcement was “imminent,” though some sources insisted that meeting had nothing to do with Williams.
NBCU and Williams’ reps declined comment.
NBC News/MSNBC chairman (and Williams pal) Andy Lack had been working on a plan in which Williams, who had reigned for a decade as the country’s most popular news anchor, would be moved to a new role outside of the evening news operation, a victim of his own creative moldings of the truth about his experience covering various news events for the division. Williams new responsibilities will include participating in Lack’s effort to resuscitate ratings-starved MSNBC, according to a source with knowledge of the situation.
When Lack was recruited to come back to the company in early March, after a dozen years absence, the Williams mess was at the top of his To Do List. Some believed it was among the reasons he was brought back, Lack having groomed Williams to replace Tom Brokaw when he ran NBC News the first time from 1993-2003.
In early February, NBCU and Comcast brass put Williams on ice for six months without pay for having falsely claimed on Nightly News that he was in the line of fire in a helicopter in Iraq in March 2003 – a claim Williams also had made elsewhere, most notably on Late Show With David Letterman. NBCU acknowledged looking into allegations that Williams might have exaggerated about other experiences while at an in-the-news location. At the time the suspension was announced, many industry navel-lint gazers believed the move would become permanent.
By April, the investigation, spearheaded by the news division’s senior executive producer Richard Esposito, had identified 11 alleged instances, including his account of his time in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, claims he flew into Baghdad with SEAL Team 6, etc.
In addition to NBC News’ credibility, there is lot of money at stake. Not long before Williams’ suspension, he had signed a new five-year, $10-mil-a-year contract with NBCU. That pact reportedly included the usual morality clause, allowing the company to jettison him if he engaged in brand-killing rannygazoo.
Since Williams abruptly left the anchor chair in February, the wheels have not fallen off Nightly News with Holt filling in. The broadcast has hung on to No. 1 status among overall audience, averaging 8.9 million viewers to ABC World News Tonight‘s 8.5 mil. But WNT has won 12 of the past 14 weeks in the news demo, including the most recent week for which numbers are available, and season-to-date leads NBC’s newscast among ages 25-54 for the first time in 19 years.
Holt has hung on to the lion’s share of the franchise’s audience, which had been slipping even while Williams was still anchoring, despite zero promotion or marketing. Holt got none of the massive push that generally happens when a network wants America to get to know and love its new evening news anchor – the kind of promotion David Muir enjoyed over at ABC since it was announced a year ago that he was taking over for Diane Sawyer on WNT.
Williams’ troubles began on January 30 when his Nightly News broadcast included a segment that purported to honor a soldier Williams said had saved his life when the military helicopter in which he was riding got hit by a rocket propelled grenade. The segment, in which Williams was reunited with the soldier, also wound up on an NBC Nightly News Facebook post. That’s when Stars and Stripes noticed comments made by some soldiers on the post, some of whom said Williams was not on the aircraft shot down and that he has been “knowingly lying since that mission to boost his credentials,” as one put it. Williams responded on February 4: “You are absolutely right, and I was wrong,” he said on air. “In fact, I spent much of the weekend thinking I’d gone crazy. I feel terrible about making this mistake.”
Williams also issued an on-air apology, but it appeared to have been pulled from the Nancy Snyderman Apology drawer and did not go over well with reporters covering the story and other industry observers: “On this broadcast last week, in an effort to honor and thank a veteran who protected me and so many others after a ground-fire incident in the desert during the Iraq War invasion, I made a mistake in recalling the incidents of 12 years ago… I want to apologize,” Williams said on NBC’s evening newscast.
“As Managing Editor and Anchor of Nightly News, Brian has a responsibility to be truthful and to uphold the high standards of the news division at all times,” NBC News president Deborah Turness said in a memo to staff on February 10 when the network announced Williams’ suspension. Williams already had told staff in a memo he was stepping down from the anchor chair for “several days” because it had become “painfully apparent” he was “presently too much a part of the news, due to my actions.”
At that time, Turness noted, she and Burke, and then-NBCUniversal News Group chairman Pat Fili-Krushel “felt it would have been wrong to disregard the good work Brian has done and the special relationship he has forged with our viewers over 22 years.”
Back then, Burke called Williams actions “inexcusable” and his suspension “severe and appropriate.” But, Burke had been quick to add: “Brian’s life’s work is delivering the news. I know Brian loves his country, NBC News and his colleagues. He deserves a second chance, and we are rooting for him. Brian has shared his deep remorse with me, and he is committed to winning back everyone’s trust.”
Sources had said an announcement on Williams’ future could come this week — though, of course, sources also had said an announcement was coming last week, was coming during NBC’s presentation of Upfront Week, was coming during NBC’s affiliate meeting during Upfront Week, etc. It’s been exasperating for journalists who are used to quicker action on news stories.
Meanwhile, NBC News and Williams have not been speaking on the subject of Williams’ suspension or results of the NBC News investigation, and Williams barely has been seen in public.
In recent days, reports had surfaced Williams and his lawyer, Robert Barnett, were dragging out the talks, and that negotiations had turned acrimonious, though sources with knowledge of the situation dismissed that report as horseradish.