Word that NBCUniversal is in talks to bring back Andrew Lack as news chief in hopes of restoring the division’s stature — and ratings — set industry observers to talking about who’d be the big winners in this development, and who not so much.
Brian Williams, for instance, will now have another pal in the place, as the company mulls whether his imaginative renderings of his role in events he covered for the division, including that helicopter attack in the early days of the Iraq war, and Hurricane Katrina, rise to the level of fireable offense. Williams goes way back with Lack, who began running NBC News in 1993 and stayed through 2001, during which time NBC’s Nightly News, morning infotainment program Today, and Sunday Beltway show Meet The Press all towered in their dayparts.
On the other hand, it’s NBCU CEO Steve Burke who’s going to make that call. Moreover, more than one person with whom we spoke noted that Lack is an old-school journalist, and not a sentimentalist. So the jury’s still out on Williams, in more ways than one.
Matt Lauer, on the other hand, is a solid winner. Lack’s the guy who gave Lauer his job on Today. While Lack has stayed in touch with Williams, as well as Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric, and others he managed when at NBC News, he and Lauer are described as having a relationship that’s “thick as thieves” in nature. That said, Lauer’s already got a multi-year contract extension, signed over the summer. “Matt is getting his guy in to Pat’s job — it’s Matt’s revenge on all of them,” quipped one industry source. That’s a reference to NBCUniversal News Group Chair Pat Fili-Krushel, whom Lack is expected to replace while she’s shifted to another post under Burke. Fili-Krushel hired NBC News president Deborah Turness, who is likely to hang on to her job, but report to Lack, insiders say. Turness last fall hired Jamie Horowitz from ESPN to run all four hours of struggling Today, but so irked Lauer, and others, with his scorched-earth management style (“vocally disrespectful to staffers from the top down,” said one insider at the time) that he lasted just 10 weeks — a sort of NBC News Anne of Cleves.
On the other hand, that’s four weeks longer than Lack has been at his soon-to-be-former job as CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the federal agency that oversees the five networks and broadcasting operations of “U.S. international media,” including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio and TV Marti, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.
Which brings us to another of this story’s big winners: Jeff Shell. In addition to being chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group at NBCU, Shell is chairman of the BBG; he swore in Lack as BBG’s first-ever CEO.
“Shell put Andy in that government gig,” an industry sage noted. Shell is Lack’s Comcast relationship, and Comcast loves Shell, who reports to Burke. Shell is described around town as a quiet guy, who delivers, and there’s never any “mess” — “mess” being what NBC News has a whole lot of these days. That includes Williams’ six-month suspension, and the Horowitz hire debacle, Today show’s ratings loss to Good Morning America and its teary push-out-the-door of Ann Curry; and the kicking to the curb of David Gregory, effective immediately, after weeks spent dismissing reports the move was imminent as “ludicrous” and “insulting.”
Meanwhile, the press created a Special Class of “mess” for NBC News chief medical correspondent Nancy Snyderman, when she was caught double parked in her Mercedes, making a take-out food run. Problem is, she was supposed to be at home under the voluntary quarantine she’d announced, on-air, she would enter after being exposed to Ebola while reporting in Africa. An AP report suggested at the time she might be useless to NBC News going forward, at least on the Ebola story, owing not just to the quarantine violation, but her “arrogance” and “dismissiveness” when caught, after which public health authorities slapped her with a mandatory quarantine and local police began conducting surveillance of her neighborhood.
“To say we are fortunate that Andy has agreed to accept this challenge is a huge understatement,” said Shell, in his capacity as Chairman of the BBG, late last year. “He is an experienced media executive, a respected journalist, and an energetic and inspirational leader. We are grateful that Andy has decided to serve his country and lead the BBG at this critical juncture.”