NBC News Chairman Andy Lack Not Convinced Brian Williams Can Return

Because of their history, says one source, Lack may actually be "a tough hurdle" for Williams to clear.
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When Andy Lack was named chairman of NBC News in March, many assumed he would immediately get to work reinstating exiled Nightly News anchor Brian Williams. During his first stint at NBC News, Lack oversaw the transition from Tom Brokaw to Williams and has maintained a friendship with the suspended anchor. But sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that Lack has not made a decision about the Williams' fate.

"He's going to be a surprisingly tough hurdle for Brian to clear," says one person familiar with Lack's thinking. "He's not going to bring him back unless, one, the facts allow; two, Brian is able to express a satisfactory apology; and three, the organization can really get behind it."

Lack has been very tough on Williams during multiple face-to-face meetings, say sources. But it's unclear whether Williams has yet come to terms with the seriousness of the issues he's created. 

NBC's internal investigation, led by NBC News senior investigative producer Richard Esposito, is about two-thirds of the way toward completion and should take another four to five weeks, say sources. At an editorial meeting on Monday morning, Lack reassured NBC News staffers that any decision would be based on what is best for the organization as a whole. Lack will be making the decision in close concert with NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke. And sources describe the two men as being in lockstep on the Williams issue.  

Due to the ongoing investigation, Williams' fate will not be decided before the NBC's upfront on May 11, contradicting previous reports speculating that executives would work to get the matter cleared up before the network's annual presentation to advertisers.

A new round of speculation was spurred when additional details of NBC's internal investigation were recently leaked to The New York Times, which reported that the inquiry appears to have turned up conflicting statements from Williams about his reporting from Tahrir Square in Cairo during the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. During an appearance on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, Williams implied that he was in the square. But his reports from the area show him on a balcony overlooking the square. NBC's investigation also has focused on Williams' assertions that he was sent a piece of the downed Black Hawk helicopter that crashed during the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

If Lack and Burke do decide not to reinstate Williams, they will have a difficult and in all likelihood expensive exit negotiation on their hands. In December 2014, Williams signed a new five-year deal worth a reported $10 million annually. That was just a few months before the scandal broke following a published report in military newspaper Stars and Stripes that quoted multiple U.S. servicemembers refuting Williams' assertions that the U.S. military helicopter he was riding in during a 2003 embed in Iraq was forced down by RPG fire.

The recent ratings slip at Nightly News — where Lester Holt has been filling in — is a concern but not so dire as to work in Williams' favor, say insiders. ABC's World News Tonight With David Muir had been creeping up on Nightly before Williams imploded. The ABC broadcast has bested Nightly for the last four weeks among total viewers, its longest streak over NBC in almost seven years. Among the 25-54 demographic, upon which most news programming is sold to advertisers, Nightly remains ahead for the season, but only by 16,000 viewers. Still, insiders note that if NBCU executives expected to bring Williams back it would have been more prudent to have a rotating cast of anchors filling in rather than handing the broadcast to Holt only to take it away. Holt, a skilled live TV anchor who is very well-liked internally, is the first African-American to anchor a broadcast evening news program solo. And he has been a calming presence at NBC News; he betrayed no emotion when comedian Cecily Strong made a crack about Williams at last Saturday's White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. And reinstating Williams could send the broadcast into turmoil again.

Williams of course remains on a six-month unpaid suspension imposed in mid-February. Throughout the saga there has been a noticeable lack of support for Williams among the rank and file at NBC News. Few colleagues have spoken publicly in support of Williams, though there are exceptions including Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. And Williams is forbidden by NBCU executives from talking to the press; muzzling him from rebutting the numerous reports about his apparent exaggerations during field assignments.

Meanwhile Williams continues to mostly lie low, though many insiders grumbled that April 14 paparazzi photos of Williams, wife Jane and their daughter Allison walking Allison's new puppy near their Manhattan apartment appeared staged in an effort to humanize the exiled anchorman.