It's a testament to how quickly the news cycle revolves these days that talking about Brian Williams already feels hopelessly dated. His downfall is now old news, even though he technically still works for NBC and we can expect new revelations about his situation over the next several months. The latest is something the New York Post is reporting on today, namely that it could be a morality clause in his contract that ultimately dooms him at the network that's been his home for 22 years. Page Six says the grounds for his eventual firing could come down to this agreement signed by Williams: "If artist commits any act or becomes involved in any situation, or occurrence, which brings artist into public disrepute, contempt, scandal or ridicule, or which justifiably shocks, insults or offends a significant portion of the community, or if publicity is given to any such conduct . . . company shall have the right to terminate.” Pretty self-explanatory.
I wrote last week that what we're seeing right now, with Lester Holt stepping in to replace Williams on Nightly News, is a kind of test balloon, an audition. If Holt's ratings are good -- if he manages to keep Nightly at the top of the heap -- Williams may as well get used to not coming into 30 Rock anymore. But if the first full week with Holt behind the anchor desk was any indication, Williams at least doesn't have to worry about somebody holding his formerly exceptional numbers. Logic would dictate that this is good news for Williams, but the flip side of that is an undeniable truth in the TV news business: the longer you're off the air, the less people care about you. If you're a popular television personality or news anchor -- or both at the same time -- it's hard to recapture that magic once it's lost. People forget. They move on. They try out new shiny things and decide they like them better. It's just how it is. Williams could certainly go on a carefully orchestrated redemption tour to put himself back in a positive spotlight before retaking the desk at Nightly, but only the audience gets to decide if he's too damaged to be given another chance.
The thing is, while Brian Williams and Brian Williams alone is to blame for his apparent fabulist tendencies, it's fair to say that NBC's corporate culture allowed his B.S. to thrive. Maybe more than any other network, NBC blurs the lines between entertainment and information, promoting and cross-promoting its people across its many platforms in an effort to heighten their star power. When you're, say, an actor in an NBC sitcom, maybe there's nothing particularly wrong with this. But when you're a television news anchor, it's a dangerous thing to do. NBC was always more than happy to have Brian Williams show up on The Tonight Show because it got double the bang for its buck since it was promoting itself. They call this "cross-pollination" and once you understand how it works, you'll see itthroughout NBCUni properties. The company is so vast, with so many individual networks and media outlets, that it's possible to double and even triple promote simply by moving a player from one area to another as a special guest or highlighted appearance.
Brian Williams has never been merely a television news anchor to NBC; he's a commodity to be advertised. In other words, he's a celebrity -- and NBC not only knows it but wants it this way. You can argue that somebody who sits in a makeup chair for a half-hour and has producers putting every bit of his show together isn't a journalist to begin with, but Williams is something far beyond even that. On Sunday night we saw an hour-long special that had the hosts of the Today show mingling on the red carpet with the stars of another NBC star vehicle, Saturday Night Live. Maybe Today doesn't have a reputation for being as "newsy" as Nightly News, but make no mistake, not only is Today a division of NBC News, it's the most successful revenue-generating engine and therefore the most important property in the NBC News family. And there were its anchors a couple of nights ago, pretending they make less money -- both personally and for the company -- than some of the people they were interviewing. Matt Lauer is a star. Savannah Guthrie is a star. Al Roker is a star. This is how NBC likes it.
While Brian Williams took his belief that he's much more than a news anchor way too far, certainly in the myriad promotional appearances he did for both himself and his network, it's tough not to at least acknowledge the demand for those appearances and where it came from. If Brian Williams weren't a celebrity in the eyes of NBC, he wouldn't have been able to keep the Nightly News anchor job for the past ten years. If they didn't think they could sell him as the second coming, and do it not only in their own news advertisements but on all kinds of other NBC platforms, he'd be practically worthless to them. This is how it is at NBC. This is their corporate culture. And it's gotten so out of control that no matter who takes Brian Williams's place -- if someone in fact does -- that person is going to be required to be just as much of a star as Williams was sold as. The whole cycle is going to repeat all over again.