NBC News Chief Andy Lack: "Solid Start" for Brian Williams on MSNBC

Brian Williams - H 2015
AP Photo/Starpix, Andrew Toth

“This was an important step," said NBC News chairman Andy Lack. "In my view, a smaller step than others might judge. But I understand it’s a closely scrutinized step."

NBC News chairman Andy Lack admits that he’s “a paranoid guy.”

“Every day is another day to get it completely wrong,” he laughed. But at the end of a week that saw MSNBC welcome Brian Williams back as the network’s breaking news anchor after a noisy scandal and a six-month suspension, Lack allowed that he sees “encouraging signs.”

The week was always going to be a big one for news, with Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States. But it also brought a flurry of unexpected headlines: House Speaker John Boehner will step down at the end of the year; Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has dropped out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination; China’s president Xi Jinping has signaled progress on a host of global issues including climate change and economic espionage; and President Obama has at long last agreed to meet with Russian president Vladimir Putin next week.

All of which is fortuitous timing for MSNBC's re-brand as a breaking news destination during the day. And on Wednesday, Williams’ second day back, MSNBC had its best tune-in among total viewers and the 25-54 demographic since the June 26 Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage. The network averaged 518,000 viewers, with 93,000 of them in the demo. On Thursday, MSNBC was actually No. 1 in the demo for the 11 a.m. hour - anchored by Williams - for the first time since September 2013; the net pulled in 194,000 viewers besting CNN by 33,000 and edging out perennial cable news leader Fox News by 5,000 viewers. From 9 a.m. to noon, MSNBC averaged 184,000 viewers in the demo for the network’s best performance since since the Sochi Olympics in February 2014.

Lack stressed that MSNBC is only in the early stages of its revamp; there is still a matter of settling on what will go in the 6 p.m. hour since Al Sharpton was moved to Sundays. And next week, Chuck Todd’s 5 p.m. program will bow.

But, said Lack, “I would say so far so good,” adding that Williams' return was "an important step. In my view a smaller step than others might judge. But I understand it’s a closely scrutinized step. I think Brian has gotten off to a solid start.”

Lack said giving Williams his own hour to anchor was not part of the discussion about the anchor’s return. Asked if he has ruled it out, Lack said, "I'm not in the rule-out game. I solve the problems I've got today."

And he said that Williams didn’t want his own show. (Williams anchored a 9 p.m. newscast on MSNBC when Lack first launched the network in 1996.)

Pointing out that live breaking news is part of Williams' "core competency" as anchor, Lack added, “It’s a chance to do something different on a channel that could use his help."