Brian Williams is back in his old job of hosting a half-hour nightly news program.
Well, not quite. Williams has for two weeks been at the helm of MSNBC’s “11th Hour with Brian Williams,” a (so far) temporary 11 p.m. program the anchor has billed as a “pop up” show that aims to be “the fastest half-hour in television.” The idea, explained Patrick Burkey, the show’s executive producer and supervisor of MSNBC’s breaking-news coverage, is to wrap all the day’s election-cycle news for viewers in a quick-paced session and prep them for what might come tomorrow. “More and more news is happening later in the evening. We have big headlines. It could be a tweet from a candidate late at night that starts something. So we felt there was a need, and we certainly have not wanted for material,” he said. “To me, this is the last opportunity to put the day into context and the first real version of what the morning shows may be picking up on.”
Yet it’s also a chance to do something else: Show off Williams’ deft handling of headlines and the personalities who want to weigh in on them. In recent nights, Williams has interviewed Leon Panetta, Gov. Chris Christie and Gov. John Kasich. The show’s graphics are bright and impose a swirl of U.S. flags on Rockefeller Center, making the place look as if it has been invaded by a Captain America convention. Between segments, Williams is prone to drop unscripted bon mots: on a recent Wednesday night, he mock-scolded Rachel Maddow and told Nicole Wallace, a regular guest, she had to return after the commercial break for additional “punishment.” He told viewers to get ready for dispatches from “our best in business team.” An exhaustive Kurt Eichenwald story for Newsweek that investigates Donald Trump was described as “longer than ‘Godfather’ 1 and 2.”
NBC News says “11th Hour” is only on the schedule until Election Day. Indeed, said Burkey, the show was put together in just a few weeks after MSNBC’s coverage of the recent political conventions. In in its early days, Williams has focused on talking, not talking heads. There are fewer of the multiple shots of chattering noggins that are so much a part of the cable-news landscape, and virtually no dependence on contributing experts or political-candidate “proxy” guests. Instead, the camera shows one-to-one and sometimes one-to-two conversations, rarely in square graphics boxes. The roster of contributors is crammed with NBC News experts like reporters Katy Tur or Kristen Wekler, who Williams bills as hard-working journos who wear out their shoe leather 21 hours a day. Robert Costa, a Washington Post political reporter who found Republican candidate Donald Trump unwilling to reverse his stance on President Obama’s place of birth, was on the show as his story was breaking online.
“He refers to them as family,” said Burkey, who has been the voice in Williams’ ear during an earlier tenure at MSNBC and during the anchor’s time on “NBC Nightly News.” When Williams and others were covering recent political caucuses and political conventions, Burkey said, “we had a feeling very much like a family. When we are in commercial break, the conversation is still happening.”
Williams’ appearance in a regularly scheduled news program is likely to generate some chatter of its own.
The decision by NBC News and MSNBC – both are governed by NBCUniversal executive Andrew Lack – to give Williams a stable perch would suggest the anchor has been forgiven for the major gaffe that twisted his career: Early last year, fresh from signing what was believed to be a five-year contract with NBC and still holding fast in first place on “Nightly News,” Williams was caught burnishing a tall tale on air that had become a favorite over the years on talk shows and during guest-hosting opportunities. In 2003, so the old yarn went, Williams was aboard a Chinook helicopter during a reporting trip to Iraq that was forced down by enemy fire. He repeated the claim on a February, 2015, “Nightly News” broadcast, only to be challenged by accounts from soldiers who were aware of the true nature of the incident and had begun to complain. Williams’ plane was never in such danger. Chaos, hand-wringing and social-media furor quickly ensued, along with a fall from grace.
Williams has accepted punishment, serving a six-month suspension and moving to MSNBC as a sort of roving breaking-news anchor. There is a contingent, however, that believes he may never fully put the incident behind him. “Audiences can’t be ordered to view, or shamed by ‘shoulds’ into tuning in. They must be earned,” said Lisa Merriam, a New York branding consultant. “A brand, even a ‘person brand’ like Brian Williams, can’t reclaim its former glow without some sort of rehabilitation. Waiting and hoping people forget generally doesn’t work.” NBC News declined to make Williams available for comment.
NBCUniversal has made efforts to smooth his path. The company has never corrected the record for “Nightly News” viewers. To be sure, Williams has apologized in vague statements, but NBC has yet to spell out for people who watch that evening newscast what was inaccurate in whatever statements Williams made.
Instead, NBCU CEO Steve Burke expressed a desire that Williams work toward redemption: “Brian Williams has been with NBC News for a very long time and he has covered countless news events with honor and skill,” Burke said in a statement in the summer of 2015. “We believe in second chances.” Without a more detailed public disclosure resting in the ether, there’s less to hurl back at Williams as he strives anew. NBCU has offered little on the matter since that time except corporate silence, giving Williams the best chance for revival.
Compare that effort with one made by CBS News in 2013 when correspondent Lara Logan served up a faulty report on “60 Minutes.” Like NBC News, CBS News made a detailed investigation of the situation, in which a source gave incorrect information about a report on the U.S. government’s handling of the Benghazi incident. But CBS released the results of its internal probe, spelling out not just the cause of the errors in Logan’s dispatch, but also a specific example of the reporter’s off-camera behavior around the story that did not meet standards.
Williams has received other boosts on his climb. The breaking-news job, once seen as a demotion, has helped him rebuild a strong TV presence. In July, Williams anchored more than 86 hours of programming, including coverage of the recent police shooting in Dallas, the terrorist attack in Nice, France and the attempted military coup in Turkey.
Pairing him with Rachel Maddow in recent weeks also has helped. The two have anchored hours of MSNBC political coverage of political events in primetime, and Maddow, who in 2015 on air asked for more information from NBC about the circumstances surrounding Williams’ blunder, has praised him. “NBC and Brian sort of investigated that and worked that out and came to terms on that, and I think he’s back on the air for a reason,” Maddow said in an interview with Variety in January. “There really isn’t anybody better in terms of handling breaking news, serious news, and as a resource for having to deal real-time with quickly changing information, he’s the best there is.” She added: “What’s past is past.”
Whether viewers ultimately agree with her remains the question. “Williams does a good job as an anchor and as a reporter. He’s smart and seasoned. He’s been climbing out of the hole he put himself into for a while now at MSNBC,” said Joseph Weber, a former Business Week reporter who is an associate professor at the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Even so, the anchor’s efforts will always be under a microscope. “His critics will be all over him the minute that he handles a sensitive story, particularly one involving someone lying. In such realms, he will just give critics ammunition to hurl back at him and, by extension, the network and all journalists.”
NBCU seems willing to gamble on Williams. The show has already twice expanded on the fly to 60 minutes from its regular half-hour format. An executive familiar with the network says it’s quite possible “11th Hour” may do so again depending on news and bookings. Williams still has some ground to cover: In his first two weeks on air, Fox News Channel and CNN are winning more of the viewers between 25 and 54 that advertisers in news programming want, according to Nielsen, even if Williams is beating CNN in terms of capturing more viewers overall. The show has so far averaged an overall audience of about 1.12 million – more than what CNN’s primetime shows have averaged in September.
MSNBC didn’t do much on-air promotion for “11th Hour” before it debuted, and Burkey said the show has been handled as a “soft launch.” Now that Williams is in gear, however, he is gaining more spotlight. His interview with Christie revealed the New Jersey governor feels his involvement in a scandal over a decision by his aides in 2013 to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish a rival may have cost him the chance to run for Vice President alongside Donald Trump. MSNBC is now running promos for the show.
Could “11th Hour” tick beyond November? “We are so focused on what we are doing between now and Election Day – some days I feel as if we can barely keep up with that,” said Burkey. “Whatever comes next, we’ll figure out as we go.” In the interim, viewers can probably expect some more of Williams’ repartee.