NEW YORK: Coming out of a commercial break shortly before 11:20 a.m., Brian Williams had slipped into the anchor chair on MSNBC Tuesday as President Barack Obama met with French President Francois Hollande.
“We have an eye on the East Room of the White House,” Williams said, where reporters waited to question the two leaders. Williams set the scene and talked about the day’s news for 40 minutes before the two men emerged, and he was off the air after the news conference and analysis.
The appearance was consistent with how Williams has been used on the news network since he started the new assignment two months ago. He had been off the air since February and lost his job as NBC’s “Nightly News” anchor for misleading viewers about his role in news stories.
NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack said Williams would work dayside during busy news days, as MSNBC tries to reemphasize its ties with NBC News and become a breaking news destination.
Williams has been on the air perhaps more often than anticipated, guiding coverage during the Paris terrorist attacks, Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, Hillary Clinton’s congressional testimony about Benghazi, Paul Ryan’s election as House speaker and the journey of an unmanned military balloon loose over Pennsylvania.
Since his first day back on Sept. 22, Williams anchored seven days in September, 12 days in October and nine days, through Tuesday, in November, according to network records. He stayed on the air in prime-time following the Paris attacks. He hasn’t gone on assignment outside of MSNBC’s studio.
His appearances seem governed by the news, as opposed to times of day. He worked each weekday during the week of Nov. 16, after the Paris attacks the previous Friday. But he appeared for only one hour between Oct. 3 and Oct. 14, after Kevin McCarthy dropped out of the competition for House speaker.
A new pattern seemed to emerge in the week after Paris, when Williams would appear at the top of hours to work for 10 or 15 minutes.
With viewership statistics being malleable, settling on a concrete measurement of how Williams is being accepted by the audience is difficult. From his first day at MSNBC through last week, the network’s viewership during daytime, weekday hours is up 41 percent from the same period last year, the Nielsen company said. More than Williams is new; MSNBC has completely revamped its daytime personnel and mission.
The network has averaged 390,000 viewers during that period. CNN, with 603,000 viewers, is up 21 percent, and Fox News Channel, with 1.36 million daytime viewers, is up 7 percent from 2014, Nielsen said.
The immediate wake of Paris, the biggest news story since Williams began his new assignment, starkly illustrated MSNBC’s challenge. The years where the network cultivated an image as a destination for liberal viewers (still the focus during prime-time hours), largely cost MSNBC its reputation as a place to turn for breaking news.
On the night of the attacks, CNN’s viewership shot up 549 percent from its average the previous four weeks, to 3.15 million, Nielsen said. Fox News Channel jumped 136 percent to 4.4 million, while MSNBC went up just 21 percent to 1.24 million.
That pattern held as the following week began, also with Williams anchoring. On Monday, MSNBC’s viewership was up 12 percent, compared to 96 percent for CNN and 39 percent for Fox. By Tuesday, MSNBC’s viewership was essentially flat compared to the previous four weeks, while CNN and Fox continued on the ascent.
Lack, in an interview when Williams returned, stressed that the strategy will take time to gel and that Williams was only part of it.
Williams, for his part, has stuck to business. He hasn’t drawn attention to himself, and certainly not to the scandal that brought him down.
“It does not inspire confidence to see him put forward as a voice or face of NBC News,” said Mark Feldstein, a veteran broadcast journalist and professor at the University of Maryland. “But that’s me. I’m an old-fashioned, hardcore journalist.”
His appearances still trigger some social media reaction. One person who identified himself as a comedian on Twitter posted this week: “Brian Williams reported a Russian plane had been shot down. He then claimed to have been in it.”
But some fans have stepped forward, like the person who tweeted during the Paris attacks that she found it comforting to see Williams on TV during such situations.
Follow David Bauder at twitter.com/dbauder. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder .