Did Brian Williams Pressure WNBC to Change His Lead-In? If He Didn’t, He Should Have

By Mark Joyella 

There’s been plenty written in recent weeks about Brian Williams and his interest in entertainment–perhaps hosting “The Late Show” or “The Tonight Show” or maybe even his very own primetime variety hour. But now comes a story that makes Williams sound like a newsman: throwing his weight around to protect his lead-in for “NBC Nightly News.”

The New York Daily News quotes unnamed sources at NBC’s flagship station, WNBC in New York, who accuse Williams of using his power to get a local entertainment show, “New York Live,” moved from its late 5 p.m. timeslot to 12:30 p.m., where the show was cut to 30 minutes:

“The numbers were increasing week after week. And the show became a hit by abandoning the depressing news stories and local traffic reports in favor of fashion, food and celebrity gossip segments. It just worked,” says our source. “But Brian wanted it gone. He killed what the show was. At the time, Brian ran 30 Rock and what Brian wanted, Brian got.”

“New York Live” bills itself as “the best of fashion, beauty, celebrity interviews, cooking, arts and Tri-State area stories.” It’s designed to appeal to a different kind of viewer than you’d expect to see tuning in for “Nightly.” “New York Live,” born as “LX New York,” which replaced the long-running “Live at Five,” which over the years included Matt Lauer and Jack Cafferty as hosts.

Williams, the Daily News reports, wanted actual news between 5 and 6:30, when “Nighly” begins. Whether he played a role or not, in 2011, WNBC announced a return to news at 5 p.m., and the move of “New York Live” to midday. “Our station has an important responsibility to deliver critical local news and information to our viewers, and the 5 p.m. will help us do that,” said the station’s general manager, Michael Jack.

Networks have long pressured local stations–most intensely, of course, network-owned stations like WNBC–to deliver the strongest lead-ins possible for network programming. In return, stations demand strong content in prime to deliver viewers to stations’ late local newscasts. New York City has for years been dominated by the ABC O&O, WABC, leading ABC’s “World News Tonight” to beat “Nightly” in NYC. So it’s easy to imagine NBC News execs–even the anchor–paying close attention to what WNBC does in amid fierce competition with a rising WNT. “I can’t point to any single factor that is as important as that lead-in to the success of news,” Rob Hubbard, CEO of Hubbard Broadcasting, told TVNewsCheck last year when ABC worried its affiliates by considering the move of the hit show “Scandal” away from 10 p.m.

As it turned out, ABC stations had nothing to fear. The new drama at 10, “How to Get Away With Murder,” was just as strong as “Scandal,” and Thursday lead-ins to stations’ late local news were huge.

Every lead-in matters. And every major market that puts “World News” ahead of “Nightly” matters. So if Brian Williams didn’t get involved in the lead-in to “Nightly” coming from the NBC-owned station in the very same building, well, he really should have.