The Williams-anchored portion on the pontiff's trip to Washington from 9 a.m. to noon Eastern time on Thursday gave MSNBC its largest audience for news coverage in those hours since April 19, 2013, the day of the manhunt for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
MSNBC's coverage averaged 816,000 viewers in those hours, Nielsen reported, 169% higher than the audience the cable news channel has typically drawn in the previous four weeks.
MSNBC was still third among the three major cable news networks in those hours as Fox News Channel led with 1.4 million and CNN had 975,000. But the lift that MSNBC is seeing in those hours is far higher than the competition.
In the 11 a.m. hour on Thursday, MSNBC scored a rare first-place finish in viewers age 25 to 54, the group advertisers target with news programming. MSNBC had 194,000 viewers in the demographic watching in that hour, topping CNN by 33,000 and Fox News Channel by 5,000.
Although it is still early to use the ratings to declare Williams' new role as breaking-news anchor on MSNBC a success, executives at NBC News are said to be encouraged by the early results. Williams resurfaced on Tuesday, and the ratings in the hours during which he is on have increased each day since.
Before his return, viewers had not seen Williams in the TV news anchor chair since February, when he was suspended by the network for making false statements on and off the air about his 2003 reporting on the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He was removed permanently from his job as anchor of "NBC Nightly News" in June after an internal investigation into the veracity of his reporting and public statements he had made about his experiences.
Williams was replaced on "NBC Nightly News" by Lester Holt, who is handling the broadcast network's special coverage of Pope Francis. The two anchors have appeared together on MSNBC to report on the story without a hitch.
NBC News Chairman Andy Lack gave Williams his MSNBC role as a way to restore his damaged reputation while remaking the ratings-challenged cable news channel into a viewer destination for breaking coverage.