Former NBC News Chief To The Rescue: Can This Mess Be Fixed?

NBC’s decision to bring in a former NBC News chief, Andrew Lack, to stabilize a division that seems rudderless at the moment would appear to be a good one -- at least on the surface.

It’s the “adult-supervision” strategy: Call in a “mature” (Lack is 67) and “respected” (at least by some) former leadership figure to come in who will calmly and skillfully rearrange the pieces on the organizational chessboard so that the operation will at least give the impression that it is running smoothly again.

That has not been the impression during the reign of NBC News President Deborah Turness and Pat Fili-Krushel, chairman of NBCUniversal News Group. Fili-Kruschel hired Turness, now 47, in 2013. Turness previously had a career in British television news, and no background in American TV. So she came to NBC as the brash “outsider” who was brought in to “shake things up.”



Things were shaken up alright. During Turness’ tenure, “The Today Show” fell to second place behind “Good Morning America” on ABC, “Meet the Press” fell to third place and most recently, the Brian Williams debacle has undermined the entire division’s credibility.

Turness has been a divisive figure. Among other apparent lapses in judgment, she publicly denigrated her own news division in an interview in The New York Times in August 2014. “NBC News hadn’t kept up with the times in all sorts of ways, for maybe 15 years,” she said. “I think the organization had gone to sleep.”

It was an arrogant, thoughtless statement that in a couple of words, dismissed the hard work of hundreds of people over many years. Ironically, her off-the-cuff “15 years” estimate would date the start of the decline of NBC News -- in her opinion -- to 1998, in the middle of the reign of Andrew Lack as NBC News president. (He held the job from 1993 to 2001.)

With Lack coming in to take over, NBC has already announced plans to move Fili-Krushel to some other management role far away from the news division. And Turness is likely on her way out too (although no one has said this publicly).

Now, with Lack coming back, TV columnists and reporters are speculating that NBC will roll out the red carpet for the NBC News stars of yesteryear. No sooner was this Lack news reported late last week than Katie Couric was rumored all over the place to be eyeing a return to NBC because of her supposed “friendship” with Lack. And Lack’s reappearance as “the great stabilizer” is being said to benefit Williams as well. According to the speculation (for which there appears to be no basis in fact), Williams also enjoyed a warm relationship with Lack, who will, the speculation continues, hatch a strategy for the rehabilitation of Williams’ image and his return to “NBC Nightly News.”

On the Couric question, bringing her back to NBC, perhaps as the network’s highest-profile celebrity interviewer -- in the mold of Barbara Walters at ABC -- might make a certain amount of sense. Couric is still affiliated with ABC News, but is seen most often on Yahoo (Yahoo News and ABC News have a content- and resource-sharing agreement).

She seems to still have a great deal of clout when it comes to securing A-list interviews. And one can be reasonably certain she’d rather be seen on NBC than on Yahoo.

But restoring her to “The Today Show” -- the scenario being mentioned most often -- is a bad idea. It would signal that the only ideas Andrew Lack has for “rejuvenating” NBC News and moving it forward is to recruit one of the network’s top stars from 20 years ago. And whether Couric is as well-liked today as she was then is an open question. Plus, “The Today Show” seems to have stabilized with Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie, so why mess with it?

The real challenge is this Williams business. The problem with his lies and exaggerations about his various experiences in Iraq (the “helicopter attack”) and New Orleans (the “floating body” story) are not only that they were untrue, but that telling them makes him seem like just another dippy anchorman, like Ted Baxter or Ron Burgundy.

In addition, as had long been rumored -- and being reported this week in a wide-ranging story about NBC News in New York magazine -- Williams seems to have been distracted by an ambition to segue into the comedy business. He reportedly coveted “The Tonight Show” and asked to be considered for the host’s job when it became apparent that Jay Leno was on his way out. And the New York magazine story even says Williams approached CBS honcho Leslie Moonves about taking over for Letterman.

These ambitions make him seem like a less-serious anchorman than his competitors on CBS and ABC. It’s doubtful that Scott Pelley would ever think of himself as a possible replacement for Letterman.

Some have speculated that with the passage of time, the “public” will be in a forgiving and possibly forgetting mood when it comes to Williams.

But that’s a big difference between the present day and yesteryear: Today, wrongdoing and missteps stay with a person forever, thanks to the Internet. The Web is like the scary “permanent record” your parents or grammar school teachers used to warn you about when you misbehaved. The “permanent record” was a fiction then, but it’s a reality today. And there’s no escaping it with the “passage of time.”


3 comments about "Former NBC News Chief To The Rescue: Can This Mess Be Fixed?".
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  1. charles bachrach from BCCLTD, March 9, 2015 at 4:33 p.m.

    NBC News, like the rest of the Network, cannot be easily fixed. Bringing in Mr. Lack is like "re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." Having spent over 40 years on the Agency side and dealing
    with all the networks one gets to see the lunacy that bubbles just
    below the surface. But then again, one man, Jeff Zucker ruined NBC, so maybe one man, M.r Lack and revive it.

  2. Jean Meehan from Meehan Enterprises, March 9, 2015 at 6:37 p.m.

    Brian Williams will reign again. This article has opened our eyes to the problems. Remember America loves a good comeback story..they forgive. His presence is missed..ABC and CBS cannot
    compare to Mr. Williams...he has a better presence, not only articulate but very good looking. That does mean something.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, March 9, 2015 at 8:29 p.m.

    No one will deny Mr. Williams has talent. Does it mean he is the only one in the country who has enough talent to lead the evening news as a journalist ? He started somewhere and so have others.

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