The well-known newscaster will get what for now is being billed as a temporary half-hour program at 11 p.m. at MSNBC, according to a network executive, starting on Labor Day and lasting through at least Election Day. He will use the roost to deliver wrap-ups of the day’s political news, this executive said. The programming maneuver was reported previously by CNN. Once Williams’ program starts, MSNBC would delay the airing of repeats of its primetime schedule until 11:30 p.m., instead of the current 11 p.m. norm, this executive said.
For a few months at least, Williams will square off often against Don Lemon, who more often than not these days anchors CNN’s late-night coverage, as MSNBC uses an increased reliance on breaking news and political coverage to notch ratings gains in an election year that has drawn outsize interest from viewers. The move would complete something of a full circle for Williams, who served a six-month suspension and lost his perch as the anchor of “NBC Nightly News” after acknowledging last year that he embellished a tale about his time covering unrest in Iraq for NBC News in 2003. Since returning to anchoring duties at MSNBC in the fall of 2015, the network has featured Williams as a sort of roving newscaster who takes to the desk to anchor breaking-news developments that require MSNBC to break out of its normal programming.
He has assumed those duties with little fanfare – and barely a hint of the promotion a cable-news network might give a star anchor. MSNBC viewers are typically not given much notice when Williams will appear during daytime hours, though there have been exceptions. The new late-night perch will mark the first time since Williams joined the NBCUniversal-owned cable-news outlet that viewers will be told what time to tune in to see him.
MSNBC executives came to the decision to give Williams the late-night roost in recent weeks, according to the executive, encouraged particularly by ratings in July. During that month, 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. The network, which saw ratings decline precipitously in recent years, has seen growth: In July, it had its best viewership among the audience most coveted by advertisers – people between 25 and 54 – since January of 2013, and its best overall audience since November of 2012.
Williams’ presence at MSNBC has likely been bolstered by the decision to pair him with primetime anchor Rachel Maddow to handle breakout political coverage in the evenings. Williams was on the air for more than 20 hours a week during the network’s recent coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions. In 2016 so far, he has anchored approximately 245 hours of coverage.
MSNBC has tested live programming at 11 p.m. in recent weeks, using Chris Matthews, Chris Hayes, and Ari Melber as hosts. According to Nielsen, MSNBC won out over CNN in total viewers at 11 p.m. for seven of ten nights in August, including all five nights last week.
Williams’ current duties also include anchoring special reports elsewhere in the NBCU empire, and he has on at least one occasion popped up on NBC’s air. He held forth in December, 2015, when Los Angeles Unified School District closed schools in the wake of what was believed to be a “credible” threat of violence delivered to authorities, but later ended up being revealed as a hoax.
Williams will have an old colleague guiding him in the new slot. Patrick Burkey, who was Williams’ executive producer at “NBC Nightly News” from 2011 through last year, will be the voice in his ear for the new show as well, according to the MSNBC executive. The two have a long history together: Burkey served as a producer during”The News with Brian Williams,” the signature MSNBC news program that launched on the network’s first day on the air. Burkey began working with Williams in 2000, and has been the lead executive producer during all of Williams’ breaking news and political coverage in the past year.
Will Williams continue to hold down the slot after Election Day? The MSNBC executive said the network is, for now, focused on election coverage and has not given the idea immediate consideration.