2018 was a wild ride in the TV news business. Shocking reports in the wake of #MeToo forced the industry to vomit out more sexual harassers. Some high-profile programs suffered ratings consequences. Meanwhile, TV news executives licked self-inflicted wounds, and, once again, viewers said so long, for now at least, to a super-successful TV news host who tried to change the daypart and network simultaneously.
CBS News veteran Jeff Fager, only the second person to executive produce 60 Minutes in its five decades on the air, got the hook in September following more reports of inappropriate behavior, which would follow in the footsteps of mentor Don Hewitt. But it was Fager’s threatening text to a reporter that got him jettisoned.
Meanwhile, NBC News got the ammo it sought in its struggles with its $69 million morning-show host Megyn Kelly, when she delivered on-air a nostalgic defense of blackface costumes during a Today panel discussion for Halloween.
And, if Tina Brown is to be believed, Charlie Rose, who got jettisoned from CBS News and PBS in late 2017, explored a comeback.
Continued drama is forecast for early 2019 as reports persist about the futures of NBC News chief Andrew Lack, CBS News topper David Rhodes, Kelly, and various high-profile, ratings-challenged broadcast programs.
Lack’s NBC News career cliffhanger has had media in a snit since 2015, when he declined to sack Brian Williams for his creative re-writing of truth about his NBC News experience in Iraq in 2003. Under Lack, NBC News decided in 2016 to sit on NBCUniversal’s Access Hollywood tape in which future President Donald Trump boasted he was so famous he could grab women “by the pussy” with impunity – a scoop that instead went to the Washington Post.
In October 2017, Ronan Farrow won a Pulitzer Prize for his 7000-word report disclosing the first accusations of rape and sexual assault against Harvey Weinstein – an article Farrow had begun reporting at NBC News, claims had been cleared to air by network lawyers, and eventually took to the New Yorker when NBC refused to broadcast it. Lack insists the report was not broadcast-ready, and press prepped their reports on Lack.
Even later in 2017, media tossed Lack into the tumbril over the ouster of Matt Lauer in order to get NBC News out in front of print media reports about Lauer that were in the works, alleging the longtime Today host had allegedly sexually assaulted a female staffer during the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.
In April 2018, sources again had Lack on his way out the door, for his handling of WaPo and Variety reports on sexual harassment claims made against Tom Brokaw.
In August, sources said Comcast was combing the industry for a Lack successor after his botched his handling of all the above #MeToo scandals, and his disastrous $20 million-a-year deal with Kelly to host the third hour of Today, where ratings had tumbled 30% compared to same hour in 2017 with co-hosts Tamron Hall and Al Roker.
In September, a Daily Beast report alleged Lack’s #MeToo reactions date back to 2004, when he was chairman and CEO of Sony BMG Music Entertainment. NBC News media wranglers, who had spent most of 2018 in crisis mode, got some help from NBCU chief executive Steve Burke, who issued a statement saying Lack “has my complete support. We have worked together closely for over three years. during which I have watched him oversee NBC News with great integrity, sound judgment and a focus on doing what’s right. I look forward to continuing to work with Andy and to his continued success as the leader of NBC News.”
The year 2019 will be an exciting one for Lack, with industry pundits anxiously awaiting particulars of Kelly’s exit package, including the non-disclosure/disparagement language. Word is, the former Fox News Channel primetime star wants to write a my-time-at-a-liberal-media-operation book that could be her ticket back to work, possibly at Fox News, which has given a very narrow response to questions about Kelly possibly returning to the fold, saying only that they are very happy with the current lineup on Fox News Channel.
“Everybody except Andy Lack and Megyn knew what a bad fit she was,” one industry source told Deadline of the disastrous Today show experiment, while acknowledging Kelly was the TV News It Girl when NBC News hired her as she charmed late-night TV hosts touting her book, Settle For More.
A new book, one pundit noted, will help get her back on track, via book tour. “You get to lay out your case — it’s one of the seven stations of the cross, going on book tour,” the informed source said. “She can talk about what she learned. She needs to do some of that.”
On the bright side for NBC News, Kelly’s exit immediately boosted ratings across all four hours of Today.
Speaking of books, Lack may face his stiffest career survival challenge in 2019 when Little, Brown and Company publish Farrow’s Catch and Kill — detailing the journalist’s experience with “the forces in law, politics, and media that maintained a conspiracy of silence around Weinstein and other men in power committing gross abuses with impunity.”
The book, the publishing house said, “documents dramatic acts of courage and sacrifice—and of betrayal and cowardice—from law enforcement agencies to newsrooms.”
Lack has denied claims by Farrow, Farrow’s NBC News producer, and one of Weinstein’s victims that NBC News obstructed Farrow’s reporting and produced a memo with results of an internal investigation supporting his assertions.
Meanwhile, NBC News observed the final day of 2018 reminding reporters that, under Lack, NBC News is closing out the year with Today, NBC Nightly News, Meet the Press and Dateline topping key demos for a third consecutive year.
Today’s 7-9 AM mothership show won the adults 25-54 demo for a third straight year, and continued to outperform ABC’s Good Morning America in the younger adults 18-49 demo for a 27th consecutive year. NBC Nightly News, hosted by Lester Holt, is the No. 1 evening newscast in the key news demo for 11 straight years, and also wins among the younger adults 18-49 demo for a 22nd consecutive year.
And Meet the Press with Chuck Todd will achieve a rare milestone with its first across-the-board calendar-year win in six years. The longest-running Sunday public affairs program is No. 1 in the news demo for a third straight year, No. 1 in the 18-49 age bracket for four consecutive years, and it has clinched top spot in total viewers for the first time in six years, besting ABC’s This Week and CBS’ Face the Nation.
Meanwhile, CBS News gave NBC News a run for its money in 2018, at least in ginning up controversial headlines.
Ousted CBS This Morning star Rose, sacked within days of Lauer’s ouster by CBS News chief Rhodes who cited WaPo‘s “revelation” of “extremely disturbing and intolerable behavior said to have revolved around his PBS program,” appeared to try to stage a comeback in April. According to Brown, he eyed hosting a program in which he would interview other flotsam and jetsam of the long-overdue #MeToo movement. But, when pressed on the subject, Brown could not remember what company was behind it, saying it might be Netflix – a company that responded to queries saying it had never heard of any such project.
Rhodes is the guy who fired Fager in September for sending a threatening text to a female journalist at CBS News. The text was sent as she covered Farrow’s latest New Yorker report on sexual harassment in the industry, in which another woman alleged Fager had sexually harassed her at an office party. CBS News national correspondent Jericka Duncan read the text Fager sent her during her CBS Evening News report, sending a pretty strong message to the 60 Minutes clubhouse.
Fager had reported directly to CBS CEO Les Moonves, not Rhodes. The new EP, who will oversee the cash cow that reportedly brings in more than $100 million a year in ad revenue, will report to Rhodes. And, there’s a good chance he is going to name an “outsider,” which is how this industry describes leading candidate and 48 Hours executive producer Susan Zirinsky, who started at CBS News during the Watergate era, who covered the White House for CBS for a decade, and was sent to Kuwait during the Gulf War but has never held a position within the hallowed halls of 60 Minutes.
Another leading candidate is Bill Owens, who was Fager’s deputy, as Fager had been to Hewitt. Owens has been running the show since Fager’s ouster.
Rhodes begins 2019 under the gun, though, if he exits, it’s likely to be over lousy ratings. He swapped out Scott Pelley for Jeff Glor at CBS Evening News, resulting in ratings drops. Face the Nation has suffered ratings declines since Rhodes moved respected Beltway wonk John Dickerson to CBS This Morning to fill the hole left by Rose; Margaret Brennan got Dickerson’s spot on CBS’ Sunday Beltway show.
CBS This Morning, an industry bright spot when Rhodes re-launched it in fall 2011 to replace canceled The Early Show, has sagged since Rose’s departure. A revamp is coming, as evidenced by executive producer Ryan Kadro’s announcement earlier this month that gut told him he needed a new challenge and would leave in January; his contract wraps at year’s end.
Maybe even less surprising than Kadro’s announcement was word Gayle King might also leave, though the New York Post reported she was contemplating a departure because she’s still steamed about Rose, steamed about the ousted Moonves, and steamed about Kadro’s exit. King has a year left on her contract.