Brian Williams: NBC’s Most Anticipated Drama Heading Toward Upfront Week

The Brian Williams drama has reached a full boil. The investigation into Williams’ creative moldings of the truth about his role in various news events over the years, led by NBC News senior executive producer Richard Esposito, has largely been presented to Comcast/NBCU brass, according to current and former NBC execs.

The presentation of the results is why you’ve seen a slew of recent reports about the number of incidents investigated, in which Williams puffed up/made up his role in major news events, including the juicy morsel from The New York Times that the investigation had “expanded” to include Williams’ description of his role at Tahrir Square in Cairo during the Arab Spring in 2011 to Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. In that appearance, Williams indicated he was in the square, making eye contact with the lead guy on horseback with the pro-Egyptian government posse. After they exchanged meaningful looks, he said the guy started beating people with a whip – except he told NYT he’d reported from a balcony overlooking the square.

One source insists those leaks are not a strategic move by NBCUniversal President/CEO Steve Burke’s camp to get Williams to agree to resign, as some have suggested. Burke is a well-known leak non-fan. But NBC News chairman Andy Lack is known for having an outsized ego (in which regard he keeps very good company in the television industry) and considerable skill massaging press coverage. That may explain this week’s news reports that Lack is furious about investigation detail leaks, Lack thinks viewers want Williams back, Lack will be Williams’ toughest critic, etc.,etc.

It’s fun to speculate who is leaking these details in hopes of getting Williams to resign so that the full report will not be released. Williams’ camp has, so far, indicated that resigning is something it will not consider. There’s a lot of money on the table; in December 2014, Williams signed a new five-year deal worth a reported $50 million.

Burke, as previously reported, will make the call, taking input from Lack who groomed Williams when he first ran NBC News in its heyday, and who was considered the only person who might clear the way to return Williams to the anchor chair.

While Burke is often described as a methodical guy who would take a measured approach, movement is expected quickly. Of the three options on the table:

a) Williams doesn’t come back.

b) Williams does come back.

c) Williams comes back to NBC News but is no longer The Guy.

Don’t spend too much time on C (and maybe not much on B, according to some sources).

If Williams is allowed to return, it would happen fairly quickly and there would be some epic apologizing on Williams’ part. Not like that non-apology he gave back in February on NBC Nightly News, which seemed to have been pulled from NBC News’ Nancy Snyderman Apology drawer, but some real self flogging. Back in February, when Stars and Stripes broke the story Williams had made up key details about his experience during the early days of the Iraq War, Williams said on his evening newscast: “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.”

It did not play well.

The longer this drags on, the more likely Williams is not coming back. Those negotiations take longer, sources say.

Here are the things Comcast/NBCU is considering. What the press has been writing is not among them:

1. Williams’ is a great story that American viewers clearly like: guy comes from relative obscurity,  doesn’t graduate college, works hard, and achieves the pinnacle of his chosen profession as the anchor and managing editor of the country’s most watched newscast. He’s a very charismatic guy, with personal relationships in important places at the company,  he has been very profitable for NBC News, maybe it’s in the best interest of the company to construct one of those great Redemption Stories viewers gobble up.

2. NBC News staffers, at least some very vocal ones, don’t want him back. WaPo reported recently that around the time of Williams’ suspension, those attending a meeting in the news division’s important Washington bureau gave him a resounding thumbs down.

3. Advertisers have not said they are against Williams’ return. There has been no advertiser push-back on Williams, sources say. Which is to say advertisers are not indicating that if Williams returns, they’re outta there. So far the only advertiser blow back has been self-inflicted: When NBC News re-ran Nightly News in several markets in the wee hours of the next morning, with same content and ads, so they could include those viewers in the ratings tally. That practice was discontinued when it came to light and advertisers squawked.

4. Lester Holt is doing very well standing in for Williams.  Yes, in the past seven weeks, NBC Nightly News, has consistently shown year-to-year slippage in total viewers, the news demo and among 18-49-year-olds. while ABC and CBS newscasts have largely shown year-to-year upticks each of those seven weeks. But Holt has hung on to the lion’s share of Nightly News’ audience, which is pretty remarkable given that he’s gotten zero promotion or marketing – none of the massive push you generally expect when a network wants America to get to know and love its new evening news anchor. You know, like David Muir has been getting over at ABC News since it was announced he was taking over for Diane Sawyer.

The Brian Williams story blew up again in the walk-up last weekend’s annual White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington — the Coachella of News Industry Gossip that Jon Stewart recently described as “journalists’ annual public killing of shame.”

Two subjects dominated the talk at the dinner and, sadly, the rioting in Baltimore was not one of them. Instead everyone was all Bruce Jenner and Brian Williams. Okay maybe three things dominated – there also was a lot about Chrissy Teigen’s dress. Overwhelmingly, the consensus was that NBC News could not bring back Williams, according to various attendees.

And how’s this for awkward – Lack and CNN chief Jeff Zucker were seen sitting in an airport together on Saturday afternoon, waiting for their flight to Washington for the dinner, as CNN was blaring headlines about the latest “leaks”, aka “plants” from the Williams investigation.

Back in February, NBC announced it was putting Williams on ice for six months to atone for his factual sins — and to wait out the media mob calling for his tar and feathering after admitting he had not, as he’d previously claimed, come under fire while riding that military helicopter in Iraq in 2003. NBC News chief Deborah Turness announced Esposito would lead the review, working closely with NBCUniversal General Counsel Kim Harris.

In her memo to staff, Turness said that “While on Nightly News on Friday, January 30, 2015, Brian misrepresented events which occurred while he was covering the Iraq War in 2003. It then became clear that on other occasions Brian had done the same while telling that story in other venues. This was wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian’s position.

“In addition, we have concerns about comments that occurred outside NBC News while Brian was talking about his experiences in the field, she added. “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.”

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