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Brian Williams pitched CBS as David Letterman's replacement, report says

NBC anchor Brian Williams speaks at the Stand

NBC anchor Brian Williams speaks at the Stand Up for Heroes event at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan on Nov. 5, 2011. Credit: Getty Images / Monica Schipper

Brian Williams approached CBS chief Les Moonves about replacing David Letterman as "Late Show" host, according to a New York magazine report on the turmoils at NBC News in the wake of Williams' six-month suspension. 

That would appear to be the bombshell, or one of them, in the long-awaited piece by Gabriel Sherman — whose impending story was considered important enough by Comcast NBCUniversal to expedite the appointment of Andy Lack as the new chairman of NBC News. That was announced Friday; Sherman's piece is online now. (Here's my backgrounder on Lack from last week.)

The Williams-for-Letterman plan was apparently pushed by the anchorman after Letterman announced his retirement last April. CBS has long wanted to get Stephen Colbert — who timed his departure from "The Colbert Report" to coincide with a possible exit by Letterman. 

But life is full of little surprises, and Williams' pitch must have come as an intriguing one indeed. There has been some speculation that Williams wanted to succeed Jon Stewart too when he steps down from "The Daily Show" in the fall. That's all unfounded and not (as far as I can tell) addressed in Sherman's story, which also addresses Williams' bizarre — and well-known within TV circles —  pitch to replace Jay Leno.

Nevertheless, the Letterman swap story is a doozy indeed and will only add fuel to a fairly widespread assumption in TV news circles — that Williams is not coming back to "Nightly News," even with a new boss aboard to affect re-entry.

The New York magazine story ends with an overview of where matters stand with regards to Williams' eventual return to "Nightly News" and notes — accurately as far as I know as well — that it's far from clear whether he actually will. Williams is not a popular figure internally at NBC News, and while these jobs are not normally defined as "popularity contests," it doesn't hurt to have a few supportive friends, either. Moreover, the Letterman story simply reinforces an impression that many already hold of him — that his loyalties are divided, or at least his passions are divided.

Here are the two key graphs from Sherman's piece — or click here for the full story; it's very good, very thorough:  

"Now, at 55, staring down another five years in the anchor chair, Williams began to tell friends he was thinking of making his side gig his main act. He relished the freedom of improv and expressed frustration at the conventions of network news. “Brian chafed at reading the prompter,” a senior NBC executive said. He also felt embraced by the entertainment community in a way he never was by NBC’s old guard, especially Russert and Tom Brokaw, his predecessor. Brokaw’s coldness seemed to heighten Williams’s sensitivities about being a blue-collar guy from New Jersey who had never finished college or been a war correspondent.

"Last summer, around the time Chuck Todd took over as moderator of Meet the Press, several staffers recalled that Williams told him: “At least your ghost is dead. Mine is still walking the building.”

"Comedy would have been a path out of Brokaw’s shadow. A few years ago, Williams told Burke he wanted to take over the Tonight Show from Jay Leno. Burke dismissed the idea and instead offered Williams a weekly prime-time program called Rock Center. Williams hoped it might develop into a variety show. But Rock Center ended up more like a softer 60 Minutes, and it was canceled after two middling seasons.

"Undeterred, Williams pitched CBS CEO Les Moonves about succeeding David Letterman, according to a high-level source, but Moonves wasn’t interested. (CBS declined to comment.)

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