Brian Williams’ return: back to the future and the search for redemption
It will be an awkward, painful but perhaps restorative Back to the Future when Brian Williams returns to work Monday.
The star anchor-reporter arrives at cable MSNBC after a fall from grace and losing a prize job as the face of broadcast giant NBC News.
We'll see if the public (and some unhappy colleagues) feels the now "former 'Nightly News'" anchor's mandated penance is sufficient after admitting to making up stories related to a helicopter mission in Iraq. He returns Monday and is expected on air Tuesday for coverage of Pope Francis' U.S. visit.
A new "breaking news" set has been built but, beyond that, it's still unclear to many how he'll be used, when he'll be used and how he'll fit in ultimately. Coincidentally, it's a fragile period for the cable network amid poor ratings, ongoing programming changes and rank-and-file distemper over Williams' mishap and homecoming.
But there is no small irony in the return, as well as the theoretical possibility that virtue could be created out of necessity for both him and the network.
MSNBC was started in 1996 when Andrew Lack was president of NBC News and Tom Rogers headed what was then called NBC Cable. Rogers recalls that the company wanted to avoid the early problems it experienced with CNBC, which was seen as a distinct stepchild based in New Jersey and not of the same caliber or values as NBC NEWS.
The decision was made to take Williams, a rising star groomed as future successor to NBC's "Nightly News" anchor Tom Brokaw, and put him on MSNBC as anchor of an hour-long show, "The News With Brian Williams." Steve Capus, a future NBC News president and now a CBS News executive, was the smart producer in charge (I know since I was a regular guest while Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune).
There's a confabulation that Williams somehow "started" at MSNBC. No. He was on a fast track at NBC and, on one level, he took one for the parent team, says Rogers, now the chief executive at TiVo. But the show, while not a big ratings success, was high quality and put down a marker. MSNBC was to be taken seriously.
"The show was an important thing within the network," says Rogers. "A rising star of the network was going off to cable and anchor the news. It sent a signal. It helped to cement within NBC the notion that MSNBC was important."
"With Brokaw and (Tim) Russert spreading that word, we avoided the problem we had with CNBC of not being embraced by NBC News at the time while Andy Lack was clearly highlighting how the NBC News apparatus should look to MSNBC as a new and important outlet to support." Putting Williams in an anchor chair was a big deal.
Fast forward to 2015: NBC had problems. It suffered a blow with the Williams ethics admissions and was a case study in untidy management of a crisis (several key executives have now exited). And Lack is back running NBC News after stints elsewhere, including a now-you-see-him-now-you-don't tenure overseeing the federal government's notoriously problem-plagued international broadcasting operations. He left no footprints.
That means he's handled the matter of Williams, an old colleague whom he likes, and plotted what is meant to be a recalibration of MSNBC from a more ideologically driven counterpart to Fox News. The basic strategy seems straightforward if not especially imaginative or any prescription for success: Try to meld NBC and MSNBC a bit better, do "hard news" most of the day, then return to star-driven prime time fare.
This, too, is back to the future. Its conceptual fragility is clear. the practical landmines are self-evident, too, including a history of NBC News reporters resisting doing work for the smaller audiences of MSNBC. There are, after all, so many hours in the day and we're all inclined to do cost-benefit analyses.
When there's big news, fine, the larger strategy has logic. But when there isn't, viewers tend to disappear and the programming challenges are obvious. That explains the evolution of the cable news networks to more host-driven vehicles, with the exemplar being the maniacally focused and well-managed Fox News Channel, which has simply kicked butt in this very competitive space.
MSNBC will try another path. Thus, after "Morning Joe" is done at 9 a.m. Eastern, it will have more traditional news, with each hour having no overt branding as one individual's personal vehicle. That will play out until noon when Andrea Mitchell's solid, thoughtful show will continue to air.
When she's done, you'll go back to more traditional news until 5 p.m. (with Kate Snow to anchor between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.). Chuck Todd, host of "Meet the Press," will get his own clearly branded show at 5 p.m. It's unclear what happens at 6 p.m. (heretofore the slot of Al Sharpton, whose predictably polemical fare is relegated to early Sunday under the early changes).
And, for the moment, the evening lineup remains the same, even if its ratings are uninspired.
Williams? Well, he'll be hovering to take over the new desk when what is deemed significant news happens. It's unclear to many MSNBC people with whom I spoke where the bar will be set for decreeing "big breaking news," especially when periods of de facto no news play out.
As of Friday morning, it was also unclear to other anchors what will actually happen when Pope coverage begins. They'd not been given a schedule. Will Williams be there for hours? Are the others relegated to being potted palms? Management has not been very forthcoming to the troops.
Williams cannot speak publicly as of yet---an interview with Matt Lauer on "Today" was it---and the network's president could not be reached on the topic of Williams.
What is known is that there will be a new internal structure of "pods" broken down into different subject areas, like politics, economics and technology and they'll be integrated into newscasts. This journalistic division of labor is not a path-breaking concept.
Interviews with MSNBC personnel at multiple levels of the organization (none of whom wanted to be identified) also underscore that there is ample unease within the ranks about Williams' return. Several pointedly noted he's not been seen on the premises yet.
If his first tour was an act of institutional teamsmanship, this verges more on personal atonement, at least in the early going. The audience is tiny by comparison to NBC and the resources commanded to a "Nightly News" anchor-boss dwarf those he'll have to rely upon now.
Matters will be awkward, certainly for a time. When everything hit the fan earlier this year, many colleagues privately and publicly said disparaging things about him.
There was a difficult meeting in the network's Washington bureau that apparently left no doubt about frictions. Some colleagues said their collective credibility had been damaged and he should not be allowed to return to his old anchor chair. Well, he's not.
He'd been a hugely compensated king of the hill for many years (around $10 million a year). He sometimes came off as arrogant, admit even friends who quickly mention his ability to be totally affable, charming and hilarious -- check his many entertainment show appearances, themselves the source of some of his troubles, including hosting "Saturday Night Live."
Meanwhile, MSNBC is like many workplaces except that, well, it is television. The levels of vanity and ego are higher. Walter Isaacson, the journalist-author who had an untidy stint as CNN chief (and does not lack self-confidence himself), told a Chicago audience the other night that he was "not very good at managing egomaniacs, which you have to be if you're in cable."
Respect, like at any shop, will have to be earned. He's no longer the insulated star of the firmament. He's no longer the person who largely decides what stories will be covered. He won't really be in charge and won't have the same retinue of staffers.
So "hold your head up high, do your business," says one staffer (who likes him) as their advice. That's probably all the more so since his giant, seven-figure salary (reportedly trimmed as part of the new gig) itself will be a source of irritation within the generally lower-paying cable universe (except for a few high-maintenance, seven-figure show hosts, personified at MSNBC by Joe Scarborough, the former Republican congressman who is a manager's nightmare and apparently has fans internally).
It's probably solid, if obvious counsel. It might also be emotionally intelligent for him to not read too much of the torrent of criticism that will come after he gets back in the TV saddle. There will be the tweeting of any misstep and the blogging of instant analyses about his performance.
And, yet, a man who's known to feel humiliated by the experience, and also angered by some of the treatment he's received, may actually be set up by accidental circumstances to succeed.
MSNBC needs a new script, even if it's fortunate that the 2016 presidential campaign plays to some of its inherent strengths as a self-described "Place for Politics." It will allow for a certain programming cruise control. But the election will come, go and then what?
It will accentuate "hard news" and go lighter on opinionated gabfests. Being cool, articulate, disciplined, insightful and a good on-air ringleader are true Williams strengths. He's far more than the easy cultural punch line for dishonesty he became earlier in the year.
Then there's a final reality: Americans love tales of redemption.
In this case, that could be a pretty good story, if not exactly "hard news."