Opinion | Anchor Away: The Disappearing of Brian Williams

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Try not to make too big a deal out of the decay of Brian Williams’ career curve, from the heights of network anchor, to an unpaid six-month suspension, to five years as a late-night cable host and, now, to the ranks of the unemployed.

Williams, said to be a decent guy by those who know him, announced this week that he’s leaving MSNBC, where he has hosted The 11th Hour. The best clue that Williams’ departure wasn’t his idea came in a statement in which he said he intended to spend his new downtime with his family. Whenever the high, mighty and well-paid make noises about wanting to spend more time with their family, you know they’ve been shoved out because as good as family time is, it’s rarely so good you’d want to quit your job for more.

The Williams departure, which comes as his contract expires, has made prominent news almost everywhere. Part of this is due to the news business’ love of covering itself. But it’s also because we have been taught that the job of network anchor is as important as who runs the top 100 corporations, who sits in the president’s cabinet or who plays quarterback in the NFL, when the occupants of these positions rarely matter all that much. There must be 500 people in America — make that 5,000 — who could do Williams’ job as well as he could. That’s not a knock on Williams, who can be a competent newsreader and interviewer when he avoids fabulizing.

But the press obsession over the departure of a news anchor at this point in TV history indicates that we have have yet to figure out how replaceable these men and women are. For example, when Bill O’Reilly, one of the biggest performers ever to glow on cable TV, was pushed out at Fox News Channel, everybody thought the network had suffered a grievous wound. But within months, Tucker Carlson, a cable personality who had previously failed to catch on, restored the lost O’Reilly ratings by stealing his outrage and bombast act.

How replaceable are anchors? Ask CBS News, which has installed five different newsreaders in the chair for its CBS Evening News since canning Dan Rather in 2005. First came Bob Schieffer (2005–2006), then Katie Couric (2006–2011), then Scott Pelley (2011–2017) and then Jeff Glor (2017–2019). Norah O’Donnell now occupies the spot. Pop stars last longer at the top these days than do CBS Evening News anchors.

But if anchors are replaceable, you ask, why did MSNBC just give Rachel Maddow a $30 million-a-year contract to stay? Yes, Maddow seems worthy. She draws a larger audience than anybody else on MSNBC and beats ratings giant Fox frequently. But her giant payout was also informed by the fact that other networks were shopping for her. According to Puck News, CNN’s Jeff Zucker offered Maddow $20 million to defect. Axios reported that Disney (ABC and ESPN), Netflix and Spotify courted her, too. But how much did any of these organizations really want her? Historically, whenever a network poaches a competing network’s stars — ABC stealing Barbara Walters from NBC, NBC taking Megyn Kelly from Fox, CBS swiping Katie Couric from NBC — its primary mission is mainly to sabotage the competitor’s successful line-up, not bolster its own. Most of the acts of poaching succeeded as acts of sabotage. Only Walters thrived at her new home. Maddow knows all about this brand of sabotage. In 2017, she told Howard Stern that Fox auteur Roger Ailes offered her a contract in the mid-2010s. He didn’t want to put her on air, she said, he just wanted to kill her MSNBC show.

What should MSNBC have done? Obviously, it should have let Maddow go, found another crusading liberal to succeed her and pocketed the excess millions. Instead, the network overpaid her. It did so because it could — the network is swimming in hundreds of millions of dollars of subscriber cash. Another reason it hung on to Maddow, perhaps, is because its new president didn’t want to take the public heat for letting a “star” go. It’s noteworthy that even though Williams has his fans, MSNBC management allowed Williams’ exit. Was it because there was no greater fool at another network willing to increase Williams’ value with fresh offers? Don’t discount that. Also, Williams is still considered damaged goods in some corners for his fabulisms. MSNBC knew that when it didn’t rehire him, nobody was going to shriek, “You let Brian Williams slip away? What were you thinking?!”

The Maddow deal seems all the more weird given reports that it might result in her nightly show ending as early as spring 2022 and being replaced by a weekly show (and other productions under her imprimatur). From this angle, it’s starting to look more like MSNBC reversed the standard equation by working harder to keep her away from other networks than to keep her busy at its own. Wouldn’t it be savory if one of Maddow’s new productions ended up being anchored by Williams?

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The only anchor I dig is Anchor Steam. Send beer choices to [email protected]. My favorite anchor of all time is Arnold Zenker, who was as meek in front of the camera as my email alerts are to its subscribers. My Twitter feed thinks it’s an anchor. My RSS feed killed its TV.

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