Lester Holt, the now-and-possibly-future anchor of "NBC Nightly News," has been off the air this week, creating yet another wrinkle in the endless cycle of speculation about Brian Williams' future.
To wit: Why is Lester gone this week of all weeks?
With Holt as stand-in for Williams the last four months, speculation has ramped up that he'll be named permanent replacement too. So why his absence from the air just as a decision is about to be rendered?
[If you are just now reading this post, NBC News is in fact expected to announce Thursday that Holt will be named permanent anchor, while Williams will assume a role at MSNBC. Please click here for the story.]
Holt was off the air Monday and Tuesday, and will be off the air the rest of the week, an absence Politico Playbook on Monday characterized as "a long-planned family vacation." ("Today" co-host Savannah Guthrie has been Holt's stand-in this week).
But some industry observers suggest there may be another reason besides R&R to this absence: NBC doesn't want him in the awkward position of having to announce the news about himself or his immediate predecessor on "Nightly News" -- an announcement which may arrive by Friday or even as early as tomorrow.
NBC declined to comment, but the network has consistently refused to indicate when a decision would be announced, and there have been false alarms before -- notably a flurry of reports last week that said a Williams announcement was imminent.
If the Williams announcement does indeed come down shortly, most industry observers do not anticipate his return to the "Nightly News" anchor chair, although -- again -- NBC has also consistently refused to characterize either Williams' future at NBC or the contents of an internal investigation launched after his suspension for embellishing a story about an experience he had during early days of the second Iraq War.
While Holt is now considered by many to be a lock for "Nightly," that might also lead to Williams' departure, an outcome network executives have reportedly sought to avoid. If Williams were to remain, it is unclear in what capacity -- and although considered an outside possibility, it's still conceivable Williams could return to "Nightly" when his six-month suspension ends in early August.
Whatever Williams' professional fate or the final determination of that, almost any conceivable outcome -- either remaining at NBC News or not -- is far from likely to end a saga that began four months ago. NBC executives enforced a gag order on Williams after he apologized on the air for embellishing a war story about a helicopter he was riding in which was forced down by RPG fire.
If he remains at NBC News, he and the network will be expected to begin the long-delayed process of career and image reconstruction -- addressing both that story and any other embellishments that may have surfaced as a result of the internal investigation.
If he leaves, the same challenges remain -- although he would not have the support of NBC News during the process.
Meanwhile, whatever the reasons for Holt's vacation, the timing could not have been more propitious: His "Nightly News" returned to first place in total viewers last week.