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Anchor Brian Williams announces he’s leaving MSNBC

Brian Williams, the veteran anchor who became an integral part of MSNBC after a critical on-air gaffe in 2015 while behind the anchor desk at “NBC Nightly News” led to his removal from that landmark program, is parting ways with the cable-news outlet and striking out on his own.

His next steps in the news business, or whether he expects to continue in it, remain unknown. “This is the end of a chapter and the beginning of another,” Williams, 62, said in a note to NBC News and MSNBC staffers Tuesday evening. “There are many things I want to do, and I’ll pop up again somewhere. For the next few months, I’ll be with my family, the people I love most and the people who enabled my career to happen. I will reflect on the kindness people have shown me, and I will pay it forward.”

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“After nearly three decades as an award-winning journalist and anchor at MSNBC and NBC News, Brian Williams has informed us he would like to take the coming months to spend time with his family,” said Rashida Jones, president of MSNBC, in a memo. “He will be signing off from ‘The 11th Hour’ at the end of the year.”

MSNBC anchor Brian Williams.
MSNBC anchor Brian Williams. (Mireya Acierto/Getty Images North America/TNS)

Williams’ current contract lapses at the end of 2021. He has since just before the 2016 presidential election hosted MSNBC’s “The 11th Hour,” the network’s final original show of the evening, and has often served as MSNBC’s anchor during big breaking events and election coverage. MSNBC raised eyebrows earlier this month when it did not use Williams as an anchor during its Election Night coverage, relying on Rachel Maddow, Joy Reid and Nicolle Wallace and keeping Williams in his late-night roost. Ali Velshi has been among the anchors who have filled in for Williams at “11th Hour,” and his departure could serve as a means of testing another anchor who is known for leaning in on hard news. Shepard Smith. He joined CNBC to host an early-evening news program after a long tenure at Fox News Channel, and while Smith’s news chops are well-regarded, the program has not generated substantial viewership.

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Williams’ departure adds to MSNBC’s potential scheduling woes. NBCUniversal is in the midst of working out a new content portfolio with Rachel Maddow, the linchpin of its primetime schedule. Depending on the nature of the deal, Maddow could pull back on some of her duties at 9 p.m., the longtime home of her “The Rachel Maddow Show.” MSNBC has few obvious candidates to take over her primetime hour. One, Wallace, who leads the network’s late-afternoon coverage and is a favorite in the corporate suite at NBCU, is said to be reluctant to take such a job, which would keep her from seeing a young son for a good chunk of the day.

Like other cable-news networks, MSNBC is grappling with viewer declines in the aftermath of the 2020 election. The dynamic is common; most news outlets see interest in their programs fade after a presidential run-off. But this one takes place as media companies of all sorts are navigating a new era when people are just as eager to seek out video news from their phone, a clip on social media or a streaming FAST channel on a connected TV as they are to tune in to a cable-news mainstay. In October, MSNBC’s average primetime viewership among adults between the ages of 25 and 54 -- the audience most desired by advertisers in news programs -- was off 71%, according to Nielsen. Meanwhile, CNN’s declined 81%, and Fox News Channel’s was off by 65%.

Williams has been one of NBCU’s best-known news personnel, working for the company for nearly three decades and translating a gift for oratory and narration into appearances on late-night talk shows and even “Saturday Night Live.” He jettisoned many of those extracurricular activities after a “Nightly News” broadcast on January 30, 2015, when he repeated a claim he had made that a Chinook helicopter he was traveling in while on a reporting trip to Iraq was hit by enemy fire and forced down. In fact, Williams and his crew never faced enemy fire and landed safely while traveling in the country. The account was challenged by soldiers who were aware of the true nature of the incident and had begun to complain, and NBCU suspended the anchor for six months and replaced him at “Nightly” with Lester Holt.

When he returned to the air, Williams set about reviving his career and reputation. “The 11th Hour” didn’t rely on talking heads or bickering partisans, but rather beat reporters, attorneys and inside-the-Beltway habitués who knew the ins and outs of the topics they were discussing. Williams stood out as a sophisticated host who burnished his guests’ reputation and steered the conversation into the choppy waters of a frenetic news cycle without letting anyone submerge it in hot talk. MSNBC used the format elsewhere, even dispatching Williams’ producer, Pat Burkey, to oversee Wallace in a late-afternoon program called “Deadline: White House” that also sticks to educated discussion of the day’s events.

The anchor’s diligence won out. In 2019, NBCUniversal had Williams take the stage at its annual “upfront” presentation to advertisers alongside news colleagues including Becky Quick, Rachel Maddow, Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie, Jose Diaz-Balart and Chuck Todd. The message was not subtle: All is forgiven.

MSNBC, then under the purview of Andy Lack, a veteran newsman and a Williams ally, aimed to give viewers a dose of late news that would help them wrap up the day and prepare for the next. After Williams’ program gained traction, Fox News Channel would launch Shannon Bream in a news hour in the same time period, while CNN gave Don Lemon more leeway in his show’s 11 p.m. hour.

Williams would potentially have no shortage of places to go. Many news outlets are hiring, eager to bolster nascent streaming efforts. WarnerMedia’s CNN has been quite aggressive on the hiring front, part of a bid to launch a new streaming counterpart to its flagship cable network sometime in early 2022. Indeed, CNN has poached several NBCU news staffers in recent months, including Kasie Hunt, a former NBC News Capitol Hill correspondent, and Jenn Suozzo, the former executive producer of “NBC Nightly News.” CBS News is in the middle of bringing its streaming service, CBSN, in a closer relationship with its mainstay news operation.

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