Cable network to relaunch Brian Williams

Stephen Battaglio
Los Angeles Times

New York – — The term that NBC News Chairman Andy Lack likes to use when he talks about the return of anchor Brian Williams to MSNBC is “page turn.”

For the sake of the struggling cable news network, he’s hoping viewers will see it the same way.

Williams returns to NBC News headquarters on Tuesday to participate in MSNBC’s coverage of Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. The former “NBC Nightly News” anchor has been off the air since Feb. 8 due to his false statements regarding his coverage of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Williams’ inaccurate account of being in a Chinook helicopter that was forced to the ground by enemy fire eventually cost him his job as the face of the most-watched evening newscast on television (he was replaced by Lester Holt in June).

But after a six-month suspension, Williams is getting a second chance with a new assignment of handling breaking news on MSNBC — the ratings-challenged outlet where Williams honed his skills before succeeding Tom Brokaw on “NBC Nightly News” in 2004.

Lack insists that Williams, who is not doing interviews before his relaunch, is enthused about the assignment and that the prolonged agony concerning the controversy is “in his rear-view mirror.”

“Brian’s core strength and his real passion is live, breaking news,” Lack said in an interview. “The piece of this that Brian loves, that’s new for him, is there are going to be days when he’s on for hours.”

Williams’ audience during his usually assigned daytime hours on MSNBC will not approach the 9 million that typically watched him on “NBC Nightly News.” But if just a small fraction of them tune on a regular basis during the day, that will be enough to lift the channel’s scant viewership among the audience of 25-to-54-year-old viewers that advertisers seek.

Lack is also using the re-emergence of Williams to solidify his plan to make MSNBC a destination for breaking-news coverage from NBC News. He has cleared the daytime hours of progressive-leaning talking heads, leaving the point-of-view programming — led by Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell — to evenings and prime time, where it is competitive on many nights with second-place CNN.