Brian Williams probably won’t be back

When NBC News imposed a six-month suspension on Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, they might as well have just let him go. Apparently, NBC executives were considering doing just that.

The Washington Post reported on Thursday that an “intense debate” raged internally at NBC News over whether to dismiss Williams entirely, and the decision to give him a lengthy suspension instead was reached only after more “instances of exaggeration” were uncovered amid an investigation into Williams’ past.

“During those talks, Williams failed to secure a promise that he can return to the anchor chair he has occupied for the past decade, according to two network sources, who like others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive personnel issue,” The Post reported.

The suspension was the culmination of a long period of internal concerns. NBC officials had been warned for some time about Williams’s exaggerations and self-aggrandizement, the network official said.

People were sending up red flags about a year ago, the official said.

What started out as eye-rolling escalated into genuine concern, but no one took action earlier because the statements that drew attention of staffers were not aired on the news broadcast.

NBC might have been able to invoke the morality clause in Williams’ contract and let him go summarily, but a significant amount of reporting on this episode has also noted that NBC’s executives were not unaware that Williams was a serial embellisher. They knew that his self-aggrandizements occasionally made it on to their network’s programs. They knew, and they did nothing.

In an appearance on Fox News Channel’s Hannity when the news of William’s suspension broke, I made note of this and other factors that will likely prevent his return to the anchor chair:

Beyond the circumstantial evidence that suggests NBC News might have been complicit in allowing Williams to indulge his inner celebrity in a manner that damaged his brand and that of the Nightly News, there are more immediate and material considerations that NBC will be forced to address in short order.

The Nightly News is about to face a calamity. A preview of the coming ratings crisis the Nightly News will face was evident last Friday, while Williams still occupied the anchor chair. The Nightly News lost 36 percent of its viewers amid a crisis of confidence in the program’s anchor. With Lester Holt filling in this week, the property has rebounded in the ratings. This is, however, more likely a condition that is due to the audience’s morbid curiosity in the gutted network news property than appreciation for Holt’s considerable anchoring talents.

Holt is a great anchor and I have adored his work since he hosted Countdown to the Iraq War on an earlier iteration of MSNBC (a vehicle that later became Countdown with Keith Olbermann), but I doubt very much that he can demonstrate both the star power and the gravitas that made Williams America’s most-watched nightly news anchor. Holt will not be sitting in that chair six months from now. Someone will be tapped to fill that seat, and there is no shortage of talented and ambitious personalities within the NBC News who can fill that role, generate headlines, and secure an audience.

Six months is an eternity in the entertainment business. Even if NBC News wanted to reinstall Williams in his role as Nightly News anchor, a dubious prospect, the property he once led will barely resemble the one he left by autumn. The audience that Williams cultivated will have moved on, and so will the network that left him behind.