Brian Williams didn’t have much to say when he made an appearance Monday at NBCUniveral’s massive “upfront” programming presentation. But his presence on stage spoke volumes.
Four years ago at this time, Williams’ tenure at the company seemed precarious. He was in the midst of a suspension, and taken off “NBC Nightly News.” Today, he stood alongside NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC colleagues like Becky Quick, Rachel Maddow, Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie, Jose Diaz-Balart and Chuck Todd – an emissary of the big media corporation once again.
“Remember when we said the last election would be the most consequential in a decade?” asked Williams during a section of the presentation devoted to news programming. “We were right.” He followed with: “This coming year, the world will be watching as we cover perhaps the most consequential election of our lifetime. It’s an election that will define our nation for years to come, and it’s already underway.”
In recent years, Williams’ attendance at such an important corporate function – at the upfront, NBCU and other TV companies make a pitch for billions of dollars in advertising money – might not be seen as mandatory. Williams’ career took a bizarre twist in February of 2015 after NBC News served him with a six-month suspension in the wake of misleading statements he made on air about a 2003 reporting trip he made to Iraq. At the time, NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke said Williams’ faux pas was “inexcusable” and that the punishment was “severe and appropriate.”
Burke has none of those qualms today. Since leaving the “Nightly” anchor chair, Williams has worked diligently to win back credibility, toiling away on MSNBC on an 11 p.m. news nightcap known as “The 11th Hour” and as the face of MSNBC during big breaking-news stories. While Fox News’ “Fox News at Night” often wins more viewers in the critical 25 to 54 demographic than Williams’ program, his show was watched by more people overall at 11 p.m. in April, according to figures from Nielsen.
He has rebounded with a show that relies heavily not on the typical TV-news talking heads, but on journalists talking about the news stories they’ve just broken, and on a range of former government officials, lawyers versed in a particular topic, or other experts. At a time when the news cycle leans toward chaos on most evenings, Williams provides a safe harbor, of sorts, using his finesse with repartee to pave the way for viewers to learn more about their world. “I’m doing a late-night show,” he told Variety in October of 2017. “It just happens to be as serious as hell most nights of the week.”
The upfront is serious, too – a time when TV networks try to put their best foot forward, rather than stepping in something. Williams’ appearance suggests NBCUniversal executives feel the newsman has done his penance.