Embattled NBC News anchor Brian Williams has a potential lifeline in Andrew Lack’s expected return to NBC News.
Lack is in advanced negotiations to take the top news post at the network, where he worked from 1993 to 2001, according to NBC executives not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. He would replace current NBCUniversal News Group Chairman Pat Fili-Krushel, who is set to take another corporate role, the executives said.
Several TV news executives who worked under Lack’s previous tenure at the network say Lack’s becoming the new head of the news group provides a path for Williams to return from his six-month suspension. Lack was responsible for grooming Williams to take over the anchor chair on “NBC Nightly News” from Tom Brokaw.
“While it’s not a guarantee, it certainly indicates that he is coming back,” said one of those former executives who asked not to be quoted by name. Five other veterans of NBC News with former ties to Lack and Williams agreed with that assessment.
“They are great friends,” said another former colleague of both men. “Brian Williams thanks Andy for getting the chair.”
Williams’ successful 10-year run on “NBC Nightly News” came to an abrupt halt Feb. 7 when he stepped away amid the controversy over his false statements regarding his 2003 reporting during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. On Feb. 11, he was suspended while NBC News conducts an internal review to determine whether there have been other discrepancies in his reporting.
Lack advised NBC News during the discussions on the anchor’s future, according to several network executives familiar with the matter. He was among the people NBC Universal Chief Executive Steve Burke reached out to when deciding how to handle the situation.
Thanks to his highly successful run when he was NBC News president, Lack has the respect within the organization needed to get support for a Williams rehabilitation effort, said another former executive who has worked closely with the two in the past.
“He can say ‘Brian has served his time and we know he was wrong — I’ve known this guy as long as anybody and I have 100% faith in him that it won’t happen again,’” the former executive said.
David Westin, who as a top executive at ABC News spent years competing against Lack, believes he is capable of restoring the luster to a news division that has been embroiled in turmoil since Fili-Krushel took over in 2012.
“He did a terrific job at NBC the first time around, and I’m sure he’ll do it again,” Westin said.
But Westin added he believes any action that Lack takes on Williams won’t be based on friendship.
“There are strong reasons why it made sense for Steve Burke to leave the door open for Brian’s return,” Westin said. “But Andy will make the right decision for NBC News on the merits, not because of any personal relationship with anyone. That’s what those jobs require.”
The situation with Williams has been part of a steady stream of events that have depicted NBC News as a chaotic organization unable to regain its footing.
NBC News hired one-time ESPN programming whiz Jamie Horowitz to help turn around its “Today,” only to fire him less than three months later after sweeping changes he proposed for the second-place morning program had been leaked to the media.
David Gregory was unseated from his moderator role at “Meet the Press” after the company publicly stated support for him.
Gregory’s successor, Chuck Todd — chosen after NBC News President Deborah Turness approached comedian Jon Stewart about taking the job — has only delivered minor improvements to the ratings on the program.
While the return of Lack, who had top executive stints at Bloomberg Media and Sony Music, brings valuable institutional knowledge to NBC News, there is still the question of whether he can lead the division into the future.
Turness, who was Fili-Krushel’s hire, was brought in with a mandate to prepare the news division for TV’s changing digital landscape.
That strategy may not matter at this moment, according to one NBC News insider who said, “How can you get to the future if you can’t handle today?”