The Brian Williams Guessing Game Begins

Brian Williams
Photo by Fernando Leon/Getty Images.
Dylan Byers
November 10, 2021

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.

Given the lofty Big Three heights he ascended during his heyday, Williams would have never fathomed a new home in cable Siberia. And yet he made something special of his penalty box, anchoring a successful and enjoyable news show, gabbing nightly with an up-and-coming generation of reporters who laughed at his dad jokes and visibly enlivened him. They also re-introduced him to a generation of news consumers, weaned on Twitter and hooked to the oscillations of the never-ending Trump circus, who were unfamiliar with his more traditional bearing. It almost had the plot of a Nancy Meyers movie: top-of-the-world millionaire newsman is humbled, eats crow, and then finds himself having the time of his life with a new crowd of fresh faces making it big for the first time. In this storybook comeback it would be easy to envision Williams returning to a more august perch. But, alas, Williams decided to call it a day.

On Tuesday night, Williams informed his colleagues that he would be stepping down from 11 p.m. As cable news continues to be remade before our very eyes at increasingly astonishing speed, Williams’ departure raised more questions than it settled, and his departing salvo politely ignited a guessing game across the industry. “This is the end of a chapter and the beginning of another,” Williams wrote in a statement on Tuesday. “There are many things I want to do, and I’ll pop up again somewhere.”

By sticking around to write a second act at MSNBC, Williams has positioned himself to write a third act somewhere else. One could even argue that late-night cable enabled him to show a more charming and personable side of himself that may make him more attractive to suitors than he might otherwise have been if he were only known for his role as a nightly newsman. 

For months, industry insiders have been speculating that Williams might move to CBS News to replace Norah O’Donnell, a move that would tantalizingly pit the Nightly News veteran against his former network at 6 p.m. As I reported in September, this isn’t going to happen. Williams has no desire to return to the corrosive nightly news grind, much less at the third-place network while the whole business is in decline, sources close to him said. Both he and CBS News probably also understand the optics of replacing nightly news’ only female anchor with a white man who already had his shot.

Beyond that, seemingly everything is on the table. Some media executives that I’ve spoken to this week envision a future where Williams gets his own late-night, news-centered variety show on a streamer like Apple or HBO Max. “He has always wanted to do a late night variety show and is obsessed with Carson and Leno and Letterman and the genre,” one media executive who knows him well said. Others posited that he may find a role on CNN, or CNN+, which would welcome his breaking-news bona fides, and reunite him with former NBC Universal C.E.O. Jeff Zucker, who recently made a serious run at Rachel Maddow, as my colleague Matt Belloni recently reported. Whatever the case, Williams will have options. 

MSNBC faces a far more perilous future. As early as April of next year, Maddow will vacate her nightly show chair to pursue other projects of her choosing, such as a weekly show, documentaries or specials. High-level NBC sources have told me that her departure will likely have ripple effects across the network, and could precipitate an overhaul of the entire evening lineup—an overhaul that must now also find someone to fill Williams’ chair at 11 p.m. 

Just as MSNBC positioned itself as the network of the progressive left during the Trump years, the network appears to be pivoting back to a more moderate center. As I reported in September, former Bush communications director Nicolle Wallace remains the in-house favorite to replace Maddow, and her ascent would likely allow 30 Rock executives to remake prime-time in her image. The Never Trump, ex-Republican would be an ideological departure from Maddow, but insiders view her as smart and charismatic—“producible,” as a former NBC executive put it to me—and, just as important, she would have Maddow’s blessing.

The larger looming challenge, however, is that MSNBC must rebuild while simultaneously leaning into its streaming future, which its corporate mothership has been late to address. While CNN deliberately builds CNN+—and poaches 30 Rock talent including Kasie Hunt and Jenn Suozzo—Comcast’s efforts in the space have been less inspiring. Peacock has entered the market with skepticism, and NBC News Now currently seems more like a director’s cut of MSNBC than a directional bet on the future. All that’s certain, amid this tectonic economic change, is that the most significant players in the ecosystem will be making news as much as covering it.