A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
Brian Williams doesn’t want to anchor the “Evening News.”
Just years ago, in 2015, the notion that Williams would be rebuffing an offer to helm one of the big three nightly news programs would have been unfathomable. His reputation was in ruins for embellishing his stories as a journalist. He was booted from “NBC Nightly News” and accepted what was then a significant demotion to MSNBC.
But the tide has since turned.
Williams, who hosted the popular “11th Hour” program on MSNBC during the Trump-era, has largely rehabilitated his image. Now, he is in demand. And after departing NBC when his contract expired late last year, he’s a free agent for the first time in decades. That free agent status has translated into Williams fielding proposals.
One such proposal floated to him, according to three people familiar with the matter, was to anchor the “CBS Evening News.” According to the sources I spoke with, CBS News president and co-head Neeraj Khemlani recently tried to recruit Williams for the network’s flagship evening news program. Two of the sources I spoke with said that Khemlani, who assumed his role less than a year ago and has been working to poach talent, tried at least twice. But it was to no avail.
Williams, the people I spoke to said, simply isn’t interested in the evening news job – which says a lot about not only Williams’ turn-of-fortune, but also the diminishing allure of anchoring a nightly broadcast news program, once considered to be one of the most prestigious positions in journalism.
What about O’Donnell?
The revelation that CBS execs attempted to recruit Williams for the “Evening News” doesn’t look all too great for Norah O’Donnell, who has anchored the show since 2019 and been unable to move the program out of its third-place position.
Publicly, the network has supported O’Donnell. When the New York Post reported in October that she was in danger of losing her anchor spot, Khemlani went on the record to the tabloid and praised O’Donnell. And on Monday, when asked about whether she will stay in the anchor chair, Khemlani lauded her ratings and said that CBS has “no current plans to change” what it is doing.
But all of this begs the question: If CBS is so happy with O’Donnell, whose current contract is said to be up soon, why have they shopped her job to others?
What CBS is saying
A CBS News exec told me, in reponse to my reporting about Khemlani attempting to recruit Williams, “With all of our recent hires, Bob Costa joining, and today’s streaming launch, it’s no surprise people are wondering who’s coming to CBS News next. But Brian Williams is not going to be doing the Evening News. End of Story.” A rep for Williams didn’t provide a comment…
Speaking of CBS’ streaming launch…
CBS revamps streaming service
“CBS News is overhauling its streaming news channel with a new name and a slate of programs presented by its big-name anchors that taps into the division’s legacy,” LAT’s Stephen Battaglio wrote Monday. “The ViacomCBS unit is announcing today that the free ad-supported channel, known as CBSN since its launch in 2014, will become CBS News Streaming. It will integrate the division’s broadcast franchises into the channel — a shift in strategy, as it previously relied heavily on a cadre of lesser-known anchors.”
Two of those anchors are O’Donnell and Gayle King. “Khemlani would not comment on the contract status of King and O’Donnell, whose deals are up this year,” wrote Battaglio, who interviewed Khemlani for his story. “Their futures have been the subject of TV news industry speculation. Including them in an announcement for two high-profile shows suggests they likely will remain at the network.”
“I will tell you that Gayle and Norah and Tony Dokoupil and anchors and reporters across the board are showing enormous leadership in terms of contribution to the service, and they are the pace cars for the entire division,” Khemlani told Battaglio. “We’re thrilled we can tap into people of that caliber and not have separate teams across the board…”
>> THR’s Alex Weprin adds: “CBS also announced an expansion of its streaming local news offerings, with CBS News Miami launching Monday, and CBS News Detroit to launch by the end of 2022…”