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.
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:
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Holt currently anchors the weekend editions of "NBC Nightly News" and often fills in for Williams when he is out, including a several-week stint in 2013 when Williams underwent knee replacement surgery. He is the obvious choice for an interim replacement, if not a permanent one, should Williams be forced to step down. Holt has been in the NBC News family since 2000 and graduated with Williams from MSNBC to NBC News in 2005. He's since served as both "Dateline NBC" anchor and "Weekend Today" co-anchor.
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Guthrie has settled in well to the "Today" show after a delicate transition that saw her replace Ann Curry at the show's most beleaguered moment. Fresh off a contract extension that will keep her at the network for another three years, Guthrie could make the switch from morning to evening quite easily. She has the political bona fides from her previous roles as the network's White House correspondent and anchor of MSNBC's "The Daily Rundown," and she's said to be very well-liked inside the network. Williams himself recently told the Los Angeles Times
, "If you polled the entire phone directory of NBC, you wouldn't come up with a negative word about her."
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The biggest star at the network outside Williams, Lauer is on contract with NBC through 2016. Apart from the sudden speculation about "Nightly News," the question of who will replace Lauer when he leaves "Today" has been the most buzzed-about choice NBC News is facing. One possible scenario could involve Josh Elliott, the former "Good Morning America" anchor recently brought over to NBC Sports, taking the spot on "Today" with Lauer heading to "Nightly." While his popularity -- particularly with women -- took a hit during the Curry transition, Lauer would bring the familiarity and the gravitas needed to smooth the possible tumult of Williams' exit.
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Tapper left his role as ABC News' senior White House correspondent to join CNN in 2013 and, ostensibly, to become the new face of the network under Jeff Zucker's leadership. That hasn't quite panned out, with Zucker betting big on documentaries and original series starring the likes of Anthony Bourdain, and "CNN Tonight" host Don Lemon garnering headlines for his increasingly controversial statements. A move to "Nightly News" would represent a big step for Tapper, who last month averaged 666,000 total viewers as host of CNN's "The Lead." It would also give him an opportunity to take on ABC News, which passed him over for the moderator gig on "This Week." It doesn't hurt that Tapper has been establishing his own military chops, most notably with his book The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor, about one of the deadliest battles in Afghanistan.
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Couric is no stranger to NBC News or the evening news slot, having famously left a long reign at the "Today" show to anchor the "CBS Evening News." Couric garnered headlines in that role, especially after her 2008 sit-down with then-vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, but in five years at the helm, she couldn't bring CBS out of third place. Now global news anchor at Yahoo, Couric could make a triumphant return to the network news fold and help NBC News out of its bind, or perhaps rejoin Lauer on "Today" should Guthrie get the "Nightly" chair. Her recent appearance in a Super Bowl ad for BMW alongside her former "Today" co-host Bryant Gumbel allowed her to show off her sense of humor while also reminding millions of Americans of her morning show past.
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It's not going to happen. But NBC News did approach the "Daily Show" host at one point about replacing David Gregory on "Meet the Press," signaling that the network could potentially cast a wide net outside the traditional contenders for its flagship anchor role. Stewart later told Rolling Stone
that it felt like a situation "where someone says, 'We really like what you do. Why don't you come over here and do something different, maybe something you don't do as well, for us?'" Stewart didn't seriously entertain the idea of joining NBC News, though perhaps his friend Brian Williams
, who never seems to pass up a chance to crack jokes, might someday look to Comedy Central.
CORRECTION: This article incorrectly stated that Fili-Krushel was a former Comcast executive.