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NBC’s Big TV-News Bet: Can Brian Williams, Lester Holt Deliver?

Brian Williams no longer has enough credibility among viewers to anchor NBC’s venerable evening newscast, according to the company that still employs him, but he may still be able to function in the loosier-goosier world of cable news.

NBCUniversal said Williams, a star anchor to whom it was paying $10 million a year to serve as a sort of face of its flagship network, NBC, would move to MSNBC to anchor breaking-news coverage that largely appears in the daytime, part of an ongoing effort to draw viewers back to the ailing cable network. Meantime, the network has set Lester Holt in the chair at its “NBC Nightly News,” making him the first African-American to host a TV-network newscast solo (Max Robinson co-anchored ABC’s “World News Tonight” in the 1970s). Williams will also serve as a breaking news anchor for NBC News live special reports when Holt is not available. The shifts were made in the wake of Williams’ devastating disclosure earlier this year that he knowingly told a false account of a 2003 reporting trip to Iraq, saying he had been in a Chinook helicopter that had taken enemy fire. NBC News suspended the anchor for six months.

“Brian now has the chance to earn back everyone’s trust,” said Andrew Lack, chairman of NBC News and MSNBC,  in a statement. “His excellent work over 22 years at NBC News has earned him that opportunity.”

For his part, Williams offered an apology. “I’m sorry. I said things that weren’t true. I let down my NBC colleagues and our viewers, and I’m determined to earn back their trust,” he said in a prepared statement. “I am grateful for the chance to return to covering the news. My new role will allow me to focus on important issues and events in our country and around the world, and I look forward to it.”

NBCU’s bet is a big one: Can an anchor who has acknowledged he lied about past coverage on talk shows and in other venues serve as a reliable source of information to a populace eager to consume such stuff in rabid fashion through TV, streaming video and mobile devices round the clock?

The maneuvers point to Lack, the veteran TV-news executive who returned to the NBC fold in April to oversee NBC News and MSNBC and who has a reputation for showmanship. Lack enjoyed a storied, previous tenure at NBC when he was named president of NBC News in 1993. Under his supervision, “NBC Nightly News,” “Today” and “Meet the Press” all inhabited the No. 1 spot. And he notched these successes after the division had suffered a black eye in the wake of a report on “Dateline” in which producers admitted to rigging a pickup truck to catch fire as part of a report on General Motors pickup trucks. GM in turn sued NBC for defamation.

He faces similar circumstances now. In 2015, “NBC Nightly News” is in a see-saw battle for dominance with ABC’s “World News Tonight.” The company’s vaunted “Today” show ratings were usurped by ABC’s “Good Morning America,” though it has recently made gains. And its “Meet the Press” continues to rebuild after the unexpected death of host Tim Russert in 2008 and the installation of a new host, Chuck Todd.

MSNBC, meanwhile, has suffered tremendous losses in ratings after initially finding great success by pursuing a presentation of the news through a progressive or liberal lens. MSNBC’s profit in 2014 was expected to fall 8% to about $205.6 million, according to figures from SNL Kagan provided by the Pew Research Center’s “State of the News Media 2015” report. In comparison, Fox News 2014 profit was expected to total nearly $1.238 billion and CNN’s $326.5 million. MSNBC saw its total median viewership in 2014 fall 14%, to 314,000 viewers, according to Pew, compared with 1.1 million for Fox and 417,000 for CNN.

NBCU likely hopes the cable-news outlet may prove a more suitable environment for its former evening-news host. Cable news these days is decidedly less buttoned-down than the early-evening newscasts, which are seen by many as a vestige of an earlier time when larger audiences regularly tuned in to TV programming at a prescribed time. The evening-news programs still draw big crowds for today, but their influence has dwindled as more Americans work later, endure longer commutes and get fed a constant stream of information through digital and social media.

NBCU’s new gambit is not guaranteed to succeed. The company is wagering that Williams continues to appeal to a broad audience that may not be as concerned with his ethics as the media that have covered his and NBCU’s long ordeal. Since embarking on a six-month suspension from NBC News, Williams has been the subject of jokes from the likes of Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore on Comedy Central. During a live special broadcast celebrating the 40th anniversary of “Saturday Night Live” on NBC, he was the target of remarks made by Jerry Seinfeld and Jim Carrey.

And there’s no telling how the move to MSNBC will be embraced by talent already on air. In February, when Williams stepped down, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow openly lamented on air the fact that NBC News would not make executives available for an interview on her show to discuss the particulars of the situation.

NBC News has yet to reveal the results of an investigation into Williams that was said to also examine other instances in which the anchor offered colorful anecdotes about past assignments.

There will be scrutiny on “NBC Nightly News” as well. Lester Holt has parried well against ABC’s “World News Tonight,” anchored by David Muir, and he has done so without any promotion of his newscast by the network or the parent company. Muir’s newscast recently edged out NBC’s for the season-to-date lead in the audience that advertisers in news programming desire most, people between 25 and 54.

“Lester has done outstanding work for NBC News over the last 10 years, and he’s performed remarkably well over the last few months under very tough circumstances,” Lack said. “He’s an exceptional anchor who goes straight to the heart of every story and is always able to find its most direct connection to the everyday lives of our audience.”

Holt’s style is different from that of Williams. By many accounts, he is a hard worker, but not as interested in the opportunities the evening-news anchor might afford him. Holt is not as frequent a guest on latenight talk shows and has not hosted “Saturday Night Live,” as Williams has.

In recent weeks, Holt has shown promise. He notched an exclusive interview with the bystander who captured video of a South Carolina police officer shooting Walter Scott, an incident that briefly captured the national conversation,  and even led the NBC newscast one evening from a seat in a helicopter.

The evening newscast can be a grind, however. Holt’s accomplishments in the recent past are already the stuff of past ratings reports. NBC will count on him now to keep his current ratings and even grow them. And he will not get to enjoy his new status until next week. Holt is on a family vacation this week, according to a person familiar with the situation, and “Today” anchor Savannah Guthrie is anchoring “Nightly News” in his stead.

 

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