NEW YORK -- The third-floor studio at NBC headquarters in midtown Manhattan is nearly desolate as 11 p.m. approaches on a recent weeknight.
But there is activity at the anchor desk in the darkened space filled with flat video screens and rolling camera jibs as NBC News veteran Brian Williams prepares for the next edition of his late-night program The 11th Hour.
The 11th Hour has given Williams a voice in the national conversation again, a scenario that seemed highly improbable 3 1/2 years ago, when the former NBC Nightly News anchor was at the center of a scandal that shook the network.
"I think I'm the recipient of something that is uniquely American," he says at his Rockefeller Center office. "People like a comeback."
Williams' program has contributed to the NBCUniversal-owned cable channel's record ratings and profits this year as the nonstop political news cycle continues to transfix viewers. The 11th Hour drew an average of 1.7 million viewers in the third quarter of 2017, topping Fox News and CNN in the time slot. CNN and Fox News have added live news and discussion programs to the 11 p.m. hour since Williams emerged.
MSNBC -- and Williams' resilience -- has been a major bright spot for NBC News, which has seen more than its share of turmoil in the last 12 months with the firing of its biggest star, Today co-anchor Matt Lauer, over sexual misconduct allegations. The division is currently embroiled in an ugly split with Megyn Kelly, who flamed out on Today after creating a stir with her on-air remarks defending the use of blackface.
Williams was at the center of a network imbroglio in February 2015, when he falsely told viewers he was in a helicopter hit by enemy fire while covering the U.S. invasion of Iraq for NBC News in 2003. The lapse, which raised questions about the veracity of his other reporting, led to his removal from the prestigious anchor chair at NBC Nightly News after having signed a new contract that paid him more than $10 million annually.
After a six-month suspension, Williams was given a second chance by NBC News Chairman Andy Lack, who helped groom the anchor's career in the 1990s.
Lack had Williams return as an MSNBC breaking news anchor, charged with handling extended coverage of Pope Francis' visit to the United States, the terrorist attack in Nice, France, and the attempted military coup in Turkey. It was a demotion back to the role Williams held before he succeeded Tom Brokaw on NBC Nightly News in 2004.
But while the traditional broadcast evening news programs still have the larger audiences, cable news increasingly has become the go-to source for real-time coverage of President Donald Trump's made-for-TV activities, whether he is riling up supporters at rallies or delivering provocative tweets. Personalities on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC have seen their audiences and public profiles expand.
Williams, who has always been at his best doing live broadcasts in a studio, has been among the major beneficiaries. "This is just a happy coincidence," he says.
Lack came up with the concept of The 11th Hour during the final weeks of the epic 2016 race for the White House as a way to deal with the daily surfeit of stories it generated. Williams was given a half-hour each night to summarize developments along the campaign trail at 10 p.m. -- a time period when cable news typically replayed its prime-time programs and viewers headed to their local newscasts, SportsCenter, Seinfeld episodes or their beds.
The 11th Hour was supposed to last only through the 2016 campaign season. But the program is entering its third year this fall. The format of the program -- which expanded to an hour in April 2017 -- allows Williams to use a more conversational style than an evening news anchor is allowed in 22 story-packed minutes. "Later, the president warns a foreign country not to let their people come here, or as we call it -- Tuesday," Williams said on one recent broadcast, an example of his casual tone.
Williams credits the audience for accepting him again after his fall from grace. He answers every e-mail and occasionally tracks down letter-writing viewers to thank them with phone calls.
Williams' body tenses up a bit when he is asked about the period in 2015 when his career appeared to be in jeopardy. He is reluctant to go into detail, but he expresses gratitude for the support of family members and friends and his bosses at NBC News and parent company Comcast, who believed he was remorseful over his actions.
"All I will say ... is you have to go deep to properly examine everything," he says. "I would not diminish the fact that this company saw me in a new and different role. I'm professionally happy and grateful in equal measure."
Weekend on 11/08/2018
Print Headline: Brian Williams back in the saddle on MSNBC