Brian Williams, MSNBC Plot Parallel Comebacks

Discredited anchor’s move is good for struggling cable news network, but is it good for viewers?

Why This Matters

WHY THIS MATTERS
MSNBC needs a ratings invigoration, and Williams needs a second chance.

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Almost 20 years after he debuted on MSNBC, then an up-and-comer with a snazzy primetime newscast, Brian Williams is returning to the cable news network on a vastly different trajectory. Williams, following a grueling suspension from NBC News, starts tackling breaking news for MSNBC on Sept. 22.

Dinged up as he may be, Williams represents a smart pickup for MSNBC, news insiders say, bringing the channel a big name and proven talent and helping rebrand the net more in line with its earlier, newsier roots. TV news vets are eager to see how Williams, famously disgraced for fabricating his involvement in a helicopter attack in Iraq, handles his new, markedly lower-profile role.

“It’s an enlightened way out of a very tough situation,” says Andrew Heyward, former CBS News president and advisor to media and digital operations. “Throwing his whole career out the window was not a terrific outcome for anybody—for him, for NBC, for the viewing public.”

More Stand-Up Straight Than Lean Forward

After launching as a news-first outlet in 1996, MSNBC evolved into a lefty hangout, with Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow among hosts with personality-driven programs. MSNBC is now blowing up several pundit shows, including those helmed by Ed Schultz and Alex Wagner, to cover more news—and stem a ratings slide. NBC News political director Chuck Todd is set to debut a daily 5 p.m. political program Sept. 28, and Williams will handle breaking stories. Williams’ first day coincides with Pope Francis’ historic arrival in Washington. “They’re steering Williams away from political news, or they would’ve had him on Donald Trump and the [presidential campaign],” says Andrew Tyndall, TV news analyst.

NBC News did not comment, or make Williams available, for this story.

There’s tumult at NBC News. In March, Andrew Lack, who ran the network’s news division from 1993-2001, returned as chairman of NBC News and MSNBC; Pat Fili-Krushel, former chairman of the news group, recently announced her departure. Through it all, Nightly News, anchored now by Lester Holt, remains on top in evenings.

Cable news typically enjoys a boom during election time, and Trump’s antics are a further accelerant for ratings. Fox News Channel averaged 398,000 primetime viewers age 25-54 this summer, up 29% from the previous summer. CNN averaged 190,000, up 6%, while MSNBC averaged 153,000, down 3%.

While Williams should provide a ratings boost, MSNBC viewers may feel there’s a double standard at work within NBC News—that an anchor booted from the broadcast net becomes the face of its cable sibling. “On the face of it, it looks like an insult to MSNBC viewers,” says Tyndall. “Like, you’re getting second-best.”

Careful news watchers such as Tyndall and Heyward give Williams credit for taking the job. Many feel his personality and experience make him well-suited to handle long spells of live TV—the floods, the plane crashes, the Pope visits and other joys and heartbreaks of the human spirit. “He’s got the skills to sit there for six hours reporting major breaking stories, staying on-air and speaking in complete sentences,” says Tyndall. “That’s not nothing.”

For Williams, it’s steady work and an opportunity to again flash the chops that made him a big-stage star. Whether there’s a glimmer of a chance for him to return to NBC proper in some manner remains to be seen. “I don’t think anyone knows,” says Heyward, “including Brian.”