NEW YORK -- When NBC News recently celebrated Brian Williams’ decade behind the “Nightly News” anchor desk, the network went with the tagline: “He’s been there. He’ll be there.”
But where he's been is now in question. And so is where he'll be.
Williams' career began to unravel this past week after he admitted to falsely claiming to have been in a helicopter struck by rocket-propelled grenade fire and forced down in Iraq.
He said in a press release Saturday that he was taking a temporary absence from the "Nightly News" broadcast as he was "presently too much a part of the news."
NBC News is currently investigating Williams’ shifting claims about the 2003 trip. His 2005 coverage of Hurricane Katrina has also come under scrutiny. And other aspects of his personal and professional life are being questioned online, from his stint as a volunteer firefighter in New Jersey to his reporting on the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
NBC News was relatively slow to respond to the revelations this week, which could be attributed to it having no heir apparent for Williams, who just signed a five-year deal reportedly worth an annual $10 million. Williams is not only the face of the news division, but a bona fide network star nearly as well known for his comedic turns on NBC’s "30 Rock," "Saturday Night Live" and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" as for his journalism career.
An NBC Nightly News promotional video titled "Battle Scars," released last October, celebrating Williams' 10 years at NBC News with the tagline, "He's been there. He'll be there." In the course of one week, both of those statements have come into question.
The network didn't face this problem when it came to replacing Williams' predecessor, the veteran anchor Tom Brokaw. By the late 1990s, everyone in the TV news industry assumed that Williams, a witty, telegenic MSNBC host and occasional “Nightly News” fill-in, would eventually take over for Brokaw. "I've been mentioned as being 'groomed' so many times, I feel like a toy poodle," Williams said in a 1998 interview.
The slow succession allowed Williams to check off the boxes expected of a big-time anchor before officially taking the helm in 2004. He’d already served as White House correspondent in the '90s, but needed foreign affairs chops before settling in behind the anchor desk. Williams' trip to Iraq at the start of the 2003 U.S. invasion helped burnish his war correspondent credentials, but that same trip might now prove his undoing.
Some inside the network still believe Williams is too big to fail, given that his top-rated newscast is one of the only successes in a news division that's seen both “Today” and “Meet the Press” knocked off their No. 1 perches in recent years. So the Williams decision is a critical one for NBC News President Deborah Turness -- who hasn’t turned around the fortunes of the news division since she joined from British network ITV in 2013 -- and for NBCUniversal News Group Chairman Patricia Fili-Krushel, a veteran media and entertainment executive with minimal news experience who now oversees both NBC News and the ratings-challenged MSNBC.
Inside 30 Rock, and in the wider TV news industry, no one is waiting for the result of the network's internal review before speculating about who could replace Williams. Below are some possible contenders:
CORRECTION: This article incorrectly stated that Fili-Krushel was a former Comcast executive.