Here's why NBC didn't fire Brian Williams

NBC President Deborah Turness announced Tuesday she is suspending Brian Williams for six months with no pay.

That could be a multi-million dollar penalty: In December, Williams signed a new five-year deal which Variety reported could be worth up to $10 million per year.

But why not fire him, as the pitchfork-bearing critics have demanded?

A suspension gives the network time to assess the damage Williams has done to his credibility. It also gives the network time to see if possible successors, like Lester Holt, can attract enough viewers to keep NBC from slipping out of first place in the evening news race. If not, NBC can rotate in other temporary replacements until they find a good fit.

Then, in mid-August, when TV news viewership is at its lowest, Williams could come back to work. There would be time to react if there is audience blowback before the fall season and the November ratings period.

These temporary jobs are not without precedent. CBS moved beloved Bob Schieffer into the anchor chair Dan Rather vacated in 2005 amid controversy stemming from a report on George Bush's military record. Schieffer was replaced by Katie Couric. Couric is gone from CBS; Schieffer remains. But even with Schieffer as a temporary replacement, CBS added more than 100,000 viewers. Holt could take some lessons from that.

Whether Williams stays or goes, he has already lasted longer in the anchor chair than most. The website came up with a chart showing how Williams fits in with the average network anchor lifespan:

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It's interesting to see all of the attention Williams is receiving even while industry experts admit that evening news anchors are not as important as they used to be.

A year ago, the Pew Research Center found the majority of Americans surveyed could not recognize Williams.


Pew wrote, "3 percent thought the photo was of former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw and 2% thought it was Vice President Joe Biden." Thirty years ago, almost half of those questioned knew who Dan Rather was. 

And look at this Pew chart. It shows the challenge ahead for NBC with or without Williams.  Only 15 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds knew who Williams was a little more than a year ago.


And nobody should crow about repeated surveys, like one conducted by Pew last year that showed even the most trusted network news source is only trusted by about half of the public. We live in a time of odd news consumption habits, when one in five people admit that they get their news from sources they don't necessarily trust.

NBC's suspension of Williams takes some pressure off network executives to have to make long-term decisions right away. A 65-year legacy is at stake.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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