In early 2016, Andy Lack and Brian Williams sat down at Canaletto, a small, white-tablecloth Italian restaurant on New York’s Upper East Side, to hatch one of the greatest redemption efforts in the recent history of American news media. Lack, who had presided over NBC News during its heyday in the 1990s, had just returned as chairman of NBC News and MSNBC. Williams, the storied Nightly News anchor and heir to Tom Brokaw, was still trying to claw his way back to respect and relevance after blowing up his career with blatantly false claims about his experiences covering the war in Iraq. After a six-month penance, he had assumed a new role anchoring breaking news and special reports for MSNBC, a considerable fall from the lofty heights of the evening news that left him untethered to any dedicated slot in the cable channel’s lineup.
The brightest stars of NBC News don’t usually leave 30 Rock with their heads held high. Deborah Norville never made it back to Today after her maternity leave. Ann Curry was publicly humiliated and fired after being undermined by Matt Lauer. Lauer, in turn, left in infamy amid a high-profile sexual harassment scandal. David Gregory, the former “Meet The Press” host, was hung out to dry in the press for a year before the network cut him loose. A few years after the Williams debacle, Megyn Kelly, who courted controversy but couldn’t draw ratings, was forced out years before her contract was up, leaving the network holding the bag on a $69 million deal.
Lack saw a more promising future for Williams. Over dinner at Canaletto, he told Williams that it would be “malpractice” for him not to be on the air covering the historic 2016 presidential campaign, sources familiar with their conversation said. The two men dreamed up a vision for a late-night show, loosely based on the model of ABC’s Nightline, that would give Williams an opportunity to re-enter the news arena and re-establish his credibility. They later agreed that the show should air at 11 p.m., a fallow time in the television lineup—particularly since Jon Stewart had just vacated his position at Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. It would give Williams room to experiment and room for error. Williams later came up with the title The 11th Hour, which seemed to refer to the state of his own career as much as his time slot.