Brian Williams' 'Nightly News' absence fuels speculation

Controversy surrounding 'NBC Nightly News' anchor Brian Williams leads to speculation about his replacement

Now that Brian Williams is temporarily sidelined from "NBC Nightly News," speculation among television insiders is growing about what the network will do if he does not return to the anchor chair.

Lester Holt, filling in for Williams, mentioned on Monday's edition that the anchor was taking "several days off this broadcast amid questions over how he recalled certain stories he covered."

NBC News is hoping it really is just a few days. An anchor transition is the least enviable task any news division faces.

Williams, who in December had renewed his contract with NBC, voluntarily stepped away as the network completes an internal investigation into claims that he made misleading statements about coming under attack while reporting on the 2003 Iraq invasion. Management is also looking into possible discrepancies in his 2005 coverage of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. As NBC's top brass determine the anchor's future, how a potential exit by Williams would play out also has to be in their calculations.

"They have to be thinking about it," former ABC News President David Westin said. "Succession is always very difficult. It's a lot harder than it looks. NBC thought they had Brian for a quite a few years. They never anticipated they would have this problem."

NBC would have little choice but to remove him from the anchor chair if other on-air false statements turn up, according to an NBC executive familiar with the discussions but not authorized to speak publicly.

If untruthful statements were during talk-show appearances and other forums, executives will have to weigh how much the controversy has damaged the news division's image.

NBC will also closely follow viewer reaction. Williams' broadcast saw a 21% drop in viewers on Friday when ratings were compared to the average of the previous four days. Another executive at NBC News who was not authorized to speak publicly said there is no reason for concern yet as "Nightly" typically goes down more than its competitors on Friday, the lowest-rated night for evening newscasts. ABC World News Tonight won Friday night by 450,000 viewers. The previous Friday before the Williams story broke, the lead was 400,000. Williams' audience of 8 million viewers was off about 100,000 from the previous Friday, based on preliminary Nielsen numbers.

If a change has to be made, the easiest move is for NBC News to install Holt, the weekend anchor. Holt usually maintains Williams' ratings during the weekdays when he fills in.

If Holt is named as the permanent replacement, he would be the first African American solo anchor of a network evening newscast. Max Robinson was part of a team that helmed "ABC World News Tonight" from 1978 to 1983, and Bernard Shaw was the principal anchor for years on cable network CNN.

A high-profile promotion of a minority journalist would help mitigate the horrendous public relations blow to NBC News that a hastened Williams exit would present. Holt is also a dependable, tireless professional liked throughout the company, according to people inside and outside NBC who have worked with him.

The second option is moving Matt Lauer from "Today" to the "Nightly" anchor chair. There is precedent for on-air talent moving from the morning to the evening — Tom Brokaw, Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer have all successfully done it.

Lauer would also help the healing process needed if Williams had to depart. While Lauer has been caught up in the messy internal politics of "Today" in recent years, his journalistic integrity and work ethic have never been questioned.

Such a change would accelerate any succession plan at "Today," moving third-hour co-host Willie Geist or contributor Josh Elliott into the co-anchor chair next to Savannah Guthrie. Such moves can be disruptive to habit-driven morning viewers, and that presents a financial risk to "Today," the main profit generator for NBC News.

"With the evening news we're talking about 22 minutes," said one media executive who spent years dealing with crisis in the TV news business. "It's a lot harder to find someone to fill in on 'Today' than to read a straight newscast."

With "Today" stuck in second place behind "Good Morning America," there are some people inside NBC News who believe that this might the opportunity to shake things up.

NBC could also try to have it both ways by keeping Lauer on "Today" and making him the face of the news division by handling special events and breaking coverage while Holt performs the "Nightly News" duties.

ABC has taken that approach with "GMA" co-anchor George Stephanopoulos, who also serves as chief anchor for the network, while David Muir is in the chair for "ABC World News Tonight." Stephanopoulos was once considered an heir to the evening news job but was too important to the ratings and revenue success of "GMA" to be moved.

Westin said there is no question that NBC's No. 1 scenario is to try to keep Williams where he is.

"He's very good at his job, and he's had a distinguished career," he said. "And with every one of these transitions you lose some of your audience. Unless you really think he's losing the audience fast, your first choice is to stay with what you have."

Meg James contributed to this report.

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