Four months into his suspension from "Nightly News" for fabricating a war story whopper, Brian Williams finally appears to have his answer about a return date: There won't be one.
Various media outlets in recent days -- citing NBC executives who requested anonymity -- have reported that Williams' return to "Nightly News" is now unlikely, and that instead, the network will strip the word "placeholder" from Lester Holt, and name him permanent anchor of the program.
Nevertheless, an official pronouncement has yet to be made, and much can -- and likely will -- happen until that point whenever it arrives, even perhaps imminently. (NBC has declined to comment to me as well.)
Therefore, Brian Williams -- after a hugely successful 10-year run that sought to sustain Tom Brokaw's legendary one -- is almost certainly on the verge of a new career, either at NBC News or elsewhere.
For both Williams, 55, and NBC, the consequences are considerable: A bitter break becomes a monumental distraction for both staffers and public, and would even threaten or, at the very least, diminish Holt's current success in the role.
A departure from NBC essentially frees Williams to go elsewhere, and -- in a Jacoby Ellsbury spoiler role -- be part of a potential championship team at another network, to NBC's detriment.
Moreover, Williams now must expunge his own scarlet letter -- a bogus war story (about riding in a helicopter that came under RPG fire) that is reportedly not an isolated instance of embellishment but rather part of a pattern extending to other stories as well.
NBC has determined that the cumulative damage is so great that it precludes a return as "Nightly" anchor, but buried within that assumption lies a riddle: If it precludes a return to "Nightly," then why should it not preclude a return to other news programs, as either reporter or anchor?
Williams' self-inflicted purgatory these last four months may have almost tragic overtones -- a devastating and potentially fatal blow to one of the stellar network news careers of the last decade -- but has also exposed an unanticipated silver lining: An almost obsessive public interest in Williams' fate.
At minimum, that would seem to indicate to the network that a cavalier or clumsy handling of the soon-to-be former anchor -- an Ann Curry-size bobble, for example -- is to be avoided at all costs. Viewed another way, it indicates that Williams is a bona fide star, whom viewers care about and want to see back on the air in some capacity.
So let's get to those options. Here are just a few that are either being discussed, have been discussed, or might come under the heading "hypothetical," or "long shot." I'll try to characterize which is which:
Remain at NBC: This is Plan No. 1. By all accounts, NBC wants to keep Williams but the rub, of course, is this: As what? A "Nightly" role seems remote, but not out of the question, but a "dual anchor" role is inconceivable. Dual anchors simply don't work on evening news programs (See: Connie Chung and Dan Rather) while it would simply confuse viewers. To wit: If the embellishment charges preclude a return to solo status, then what magic formula was used to determine that a "dual anchor" role would be perfectly OK? There is no magic formula. This won't happen.
Roving anchor: I address this above, but to elaborate -- rove to where, and report on what? NBC News already has a seasoned stable of correspondents. Why "bigfoot" any of them?
Return to Washington, D.C., in a political reporting capacity: Williams had a good run as chief White House correspondent, even if it was part of the anchor grooming process. And, with a historic election looming, NBC could use more muscle in Washington and on the campaign trail. ABC News has in place a roughly similar set up -- George Stephanopoulos is expected to take the network's lead role as anchor on major political stories, for example. But how would this sit with Holt? Would he view this --as he rightly should --as a diminution of his status? Washington is a longshot here. Besides, Williams is uninterested in Beltway stories.
"Today" show: An intriguing idea, but a long-shot idea too. The intriguing part -- Matt Lauer will be leaving at some point, and after an 18-year run, that would likely be within a handful of years as opposed to "many years." A 20-year milestone? Who knows, but a replacement scenario has to be affixed somewhere within NBC News' thinking. Williams' skill set wouldn't include morning TV -- it is difficult and it is highly specialized -- but he is a talented broadcaster. Could he handle this? I think so.
A prime-time hour: This has a been-there-done-that vibe, and the vibe was not exactly a good one either. Despite initially lavish resources, "Rock Center" was seen by few. Hard to blame Williams for that -- when Tom Brokaw had his own prime-time hour (with Katie Couric) that was also widely ignored. Viewers want what they already have -- "Dateline," and they have it in abundance.
"Dateline:" What about "Dateline?" Answer this with another question -- what does the phrase "running out the contract" mean to you? It means that if Williams goes here, it will be a clear and present signal that he is awaiting the moment to leave altogether. What's wrong with "Dateline?" Nothing -- and Holt has proved that this is hardly a place where careers languish. Viewers love the show. But it simply doesn't play to Williams' strengths. If it did, he would have had a prominent role here years ago.
A return to reporting: A noble profession and a more important one than anchoring, the pay is simply not here. Williams would have to adjust his salary expectations dramatically. Nonetheless, a return to the field -- where good and potentially important and career-mending work might result -- is not the worst idea in the world.
Syndication: A tough racket, syndication, but a lucrative one. Nevertheless, almost too tough. Meredith Vieira's show for example has struggled. There is history here and it's hardly propitious for a Williams entry. Other network news stars (Katie Couric) thought they saw a career opportunity in this hardscrabble corner of TV, only to learn that the opportunity on closer inspection was a TV-styled post-apocalyptic landscape piled high with the bodies of other would-be opportunists. Don't go here, Brian ... I suspect he will not.
MSNBC: A network in need of stars and of rebuilding? Anyone else see a realistic opportunity for both network and former "Nightly" anchor? I've addressed this in previous posts, and considered it then -- and do so now -- a long shot. I love the idea, but still, probably, long shot. (You can check out my April post on this right here...)
The reason gets back to Williams: Would he want this? A big step back into a rebuild project that is only at the very outset of a long rebuilding process itself? The upside might be considerable, but the downside considerable, too. Also this: Williams is a broadcaster, with all the attendant characteristics of that role. Cable news stars tend to be slightly "hotter" personalities, with opinions and attitudes. There might not be a fit here after all.
Now, let's consider the outside options, as in Brian leaves altogether.
Leaves NBC for a new job: This certainly has to be a leading possibility or the obvious yin to the "He Stays" yang. Indeed, this could be the reason for the long silence: A heated and determined effort on his part to sever his relationship with a huge financial package unburdened by a noncompete clause. He doesn't want to sit around for a couple of years. He wants and needs a gig now.
Goes to another broadcast network: Well, obviously! But which one? A return to CBS would make sense, but again, the question becomes, a return as what? ABC News seems like a better fit for some reason, but its dance card is rather full, too. The right question to ask here is: Does Williams bring viewers, and with him revenue? If the answer is yes, then this doesn't feel like a longshot option at all.
CNN: Network chief Jeff Zucker continues to look for a big score -- his job may say "cable" but his instincts are pure 'broadcast." With Williams, CNN gets a big-time star but also one with a big time professional blemish, which -- I believe -- would and will fade with time.
Fox News: Perhaps in an alternate universe ... except FNC chief Roger Ailes knows Williams has brand equity -- viewers like him, or most did, and know him. He's a star. Ailes likes stars, except he likes to build his own, not those of the just-add-water variety who come fully formed. In addition, Fox viewers might consider him one of those mainstream media elites that they like to say they disdain.
The X Factor: Ah yes, dear reader, you've made it to the X Factor in this post. Congratulations. The X Factor is -- in all likelihood -- what actually WILL happen. It is the eventuality that no one has thought of, no pundit has dreamed up, no industry expert has concocted. The X Factor could be anything -- a comedy show on Comedy Central? An HBO series? A Yahoo series? A late-night comedy gig for Fox?
Or a Netflix series of some sort?
The X Factor could be anything (and probably none of these things either). It's also what makes the Brian Williams sweepstakes so intriguing.