March 8, 2015 10:16 a.m.
On a snowy evening in December, Brian Williams and his wife, Jane, met with a small group of NBC executives for a celebratory dinner in a private room at Del Posto, Mario Batali’s restaurant in Chelsea. Williams had just notched his tenth anniversary anchoring the top-rated Nightly News, and NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke wanted to commemorate the past—and lock in the network’s future. For months, Williams had been in contract negotiations with Burke, a standoff NBC couldn’t afford to lose. Williams was the face of NBC News, with a nightly audience of more than 8 million people. More important, his program was an island of stability in a news division roiled by a series of self-inflicted crises.
No one at the table knew whether Williams wanted to stay in the anchor chair. Although he seemed genetically bred to be a newscaster—with that perfect almond hair, a jutting jaw, and a commanding yet calming baritone—Williams had, in recent years, developed ambitions to do more than read a teleprompter for 22 minutes a night. To the surprise of many, he had pulled off an unlikely second act as an entertainer. He parried penis jokes with Jon Stewart, slow-jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon, confidently hosted SNL, and played “Brian Williams” on 30 Rock. “I love late-night comedy,” he told a friend last year. For one recent birthday, Jane Williams arranged for her husband to take the stage with members of Upright Citizens Brigade. “Tim Russert always used to say, ‘Brian would have been a better Chevy Chase than Chevy Chase,’ ” recalled a former NBC producer.
Now, at 55, staring down another five years in the anchor chair, Williams began to tell friends he was thinking of making his side gig his main act. He relished the freedom of improv and expressed frustration at the conventions of network news. “Brian chafed at reading the prompter,” a senior NBC executive said. He also felt embraced by the entertainment community in a way he never was by NBC’s old guard, especially Russert and Tom Brokaw, his predecessor. Brokaw’s coldness seemed to heighten Williams’s sensitivities about being a blue-collar guy from New Jersey who had never finished college or been a war correspondent. Last summer, around the time Chuck Todd took over as moderator of Meet the Press, several staffers recalled that Williams told him: “At least your ghost is dead. Mine is still walking the building.”
Comedy would have been a path out of Brokaw’s shadow. A few years ago, Williams told Burke he wanted to take over the Tonight Show from Jay Leno. Burke dismissed the idea and instead offered Williams a weekly prime-time program called Rock Center. Williams hoped it might develop into a variety show. But Rock Center ended up more like a softer 60 Minutes, and it was canceled after two middling seasons. Undeterred, Williams pitched CBS CEO Les Moonves about succeeding David Letterman, according to a high-level source, but Moonves wasn’t interested. (CBS declined to comment.)
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