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Brian Williams Back in a Familiar Seat: In Front of Breaking News
November 16, 2015  | By David Hinckley  | 3 comments

Friday evening’s saturation coverage of the Paris terrorist attacks finally planted Brian Williams back on the stage where he has long done his best work.

What we don’t know yet is whether he will win back his old crowd.

Before he was kicked out of the anchor chair at NBC Nightly News earlier this year for making up stories about himself, Williams was widely considered one of the best point men on television for breaking news stories.

He returned this fall as lead news anchor at NBC’s sister cable news station MSNBC, and while no one was hoping for what happened in Paris Friday, clearly it was the kind of night on which the network was glad to have him out front.

Neither he nor presumably NBC would mind if it also furthers his journalistic rehab.

He showed Friday that he still has a calm, authoritative style, coupled with an ability to integrate multiple aspects of a breaking story. While all anchors rely heavily on their production team, he smoothly asked concise, direct questions of correspondents and interview subjects.

Those skills become more valuable as a situation becomes more critical and chaotic, both of which describe what was happening in Paris Friday night.

Staying on the air for hours, Williams seemed at ease keeping numerous ragged threads straight as they emerged.

He had no answers and no singular insights, but then, no one did. His job was to be the information conduit, the person translating a blizzard of reports into a coherent ongoing explanation for the viewer.

He did that well, and if he does the same with future opportunities, it could make MSNBC more of a destination for breaking news – which it hasn’t been for a long time, as it has focused more on news/talk personalities.

The ratings from Friday are a good reminder, however, that changes in TV news viewing habits almost never happen overnight.

During prime-time Friday night, MSNBC averaged 1.24 million viewers, with 353,000 in the advertiser-coveted 25- to 54-year-old demographic.

That’s MSNBC’s fourth highest evening audience this year, which is the good news.

The less good news for the network is that during those same prime-time hours, Fox News averaged 4.4 million viewers and CNN averaged 3.15 million. CNN won among 25-54s, with 1.3 million to 1.2 million for Fox News.

So MSNBC finished a distant third, probably for several reasons.

Mainly, as noted, MSNBC just isn’t where most folks head when big stories break. Beyond that, a lot of viewers probably don’t know Williams is there, and maybe some who do know don’t want to watch him any more.

But he does have the skills and he is a brand, albeit a tarnished one, so MSNBC may see this as a starting point.

And while this may be only the most modest consolation in the big business that cable-TV news has become, his presence Friday night served the story well.

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sandra spring
I will watch MSNBC whenever Brian Williams is on the air. Together with Rachel Maddow a very good team.
Nov 19, 2015   |  Reply
Peggy Hagen
As always, Brian Williams did a great job. I wish NBC would bring him back to the 6:30 nightly news.
Nov 17, 2015   |  Reply
Jim Davis
As a long time fan of Brian Williams, I was delighted to find him in the anchor chair when this story broke. I understand and agree with the loss of his position at NBC. But few can match his anchor skills, so he is a great asset for MSNBC. When a big story breaks, he will be my anchor of choice.
Nov 17, 2015   |  Reply
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