Peacock Web hires former CBS exec to head up troubled unit

Andrew Lack, the executive producer of CBS News’s “Street Stories,” has been named the next president of NBC’s troubled news division, the network’s president and CEO Robert C. Wright announced late yesterday.

Lack represents a bold, yet slightly controversial choice. Known for his ability to craft engaging primetime news programs that generate revenue, Lack’s reputation within the broadcast news industry is more that of a filmmaker/producer than that of a journalist/administrator.

NBC hopes this 16-year veteran of CBS News will jump-start morale in the wake of NBC’s reported $ 2 million GM settlement and “Dateline: NBC’s” on-air apology.

“People expected us to go through some period of mourning and hire a staid, high-profile person,” Wright said. “But this news division is an up-and-ready crowd, and Lack is the guy to lead us in new directions.”

Lack stressed that his first order of business at the Peacock web would be to huddle with “NBC Nightly News” anchorman Tom Brokaw to select an executive producer for the program. After that, he plans to take some time to get to know his staff.

The only people he knows well at NBC now are Wright, Brokaw and “Nightly’s” acting exec producer Cheryl Gould. However, the new prexy says he’s a fan of Tim Russert — the moderator of “Meet the Press” who was rumored to be in the running for the top slot too.

One of Lack’s greatest strengths as a producer is his ability to generate news magazines that appeal to younger viewers. Primetime news magazines are traditionally revenue generators for the news divisions, an area where NBC has lagged behind ABC and CBS.

Nurturer of talent

He has also distinguished himself as an impresario adept at nurturing young on-air talent.

Among those whom Lack has coached include Meredith Viera and Steve Kroft — both of whom went on to “60 Minutes” from “West 57th.” Lack also was Connie Chung’s mentor when he crafted a primetime news vehicle, “Face to Face with Connie Chung,” that showcased her talents.

He was even one of the first producers to cast actress Annette Bening. The star of “Bugsy” and “The Grifters” portrayed a lesbian battling for the custody of a child in the pilot for the unsold show “True Stories.”

At NBC, the announcement of Lack’s appointment was greeted with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. A number of producers there wondered what the hire means for news division No. 2 Don Browne and “Prime Story’s” Steve Friedman.

Friedman at one time was responsible for both “Dateline: NBC” and “The Nightly News.” And since “Prime Story” will be the first new project under Lack’s watch, friends of the new prexy believe he will be heavily involved in the project.

NBC topper Wright quashed rumors that either Browne or Friedman’s jobs were in danger. Wright said he hopes Browne and Lack will complement one another.

“They have different backgrounds and different skills,” Wright said. “Don knows about breaking news and Andy comes from a documentary/magazine tradition. And Steve (Friedman) is not going anywhere. He’s got his magazine.”

Brief courtship

The courtship that brought Lack to NBC was brief. Soon after former news division prexy Michael G. Gartner resigned, Wright began canvassing various movers and shakers for a short list of potential toppers.

Before having conversations with Lack, Wright romanced Tom Johnson, the president of CNN. Johnson reportedly considered the position seriously before rejecting Wright’s advances.

“Nightly News” anchorman Brokaw reportedly threw Lack’s hat in the ring as a potential veep in charge of newsmagazines. When he returned from covering the summit between President Clinton and Boris Yeltsin in Vancouver, the anchorman discovered that Wright had bigger plans for Lack.

On March 31, Wright invited Lack to dinner at the Dorset Hotel in Manhattan — the hotel where the NBC head stays when in town. The two had long discussions about the future of news. Their personalities meshed and Wright decided that the CBS producer was his guy.

“This business is a lot about chemistry and we have that,” Lack said. “My chemistry with Tom Brokaw over the years has always been good too.”

According to the Emmy Award-winning Lack, Brokaw and he wanted to work together for many years, and NBC has had discussions with the creator of “West 57th” and “Face to Face with Connie Chung” on-and-off since Larry Grossman ran the news division.

Sources close to Lack and Wright maintain that Gartner posed a stumbling block to Lack getting picked up by NBC sooner — particularly five months ago, when the latter’s contract was up at CBS.

Web insiders suggest that Gartner held Lack responsible for purloining Chung when she ankled NBC several years ago. Gartner could not be reached for comment.

After the Dorset Hotel dinner, Wright set up a meeting last Friday with GE’s CEO Jack Welch. Welch was impressed and by Tuesday Lack had been freed up from his contract at CBS. His salary is rumored to be near $ 1 million.

Said a CBS spokesman, “Andy’s a very talented producer, and we would not want to stand in the way of this type of opportunity.”

Lack is just one of many CBS producers who have recently ankled the Tiffany web for greener pastures. ABC’s “Day One” is executive produced by CBS News vet Tom Yelin and Fox’s upcoming untitled newsmagazine is under the aegis of former CBS News veep David Corvo.

Andrew Heyward, exec producer of CBS’s upcoming “Eye to Eye with Connie Chung ,” suggested, “The newsmagazine world has become so competitive that we’re always in a brain drain mode at CBS.”

But Friedman — the helmer on NBC’s upcoming newsmag “Prime Story,” which is scheduled for a June 23 roll-out — bristled at the notion that the only way NBC News could get ahead was by raiding CBS and ABC. Neil Shapiro, formerly of ABC’s “Prime Time Live,” was recently tapped to run “Dateline.”

“Roone (Arledge) didn’t build his primetime magazines from scratch either,” Friedman said. “He went out and hired the best people available. That’s just what we do here.”

At CBS, word spread quickly yesterday morning when producers in the Mobil Building (where “60 Minutes” and “Street Stories” have their offices) spotted Lack packing up his belongings. Later in the day, CBS News president Eric Ober and CBS News veepee Joe Peyronnin informed the “Street Stories” staff that Lack would be leaving.

Exex at CBS were caught by surprise by the news and a replacement for Lack on “Street Stories” has not yet been chosen. Linda Mason, the veep in charge of newsmagazines, was in Vietnam and could not be reached for comment.

Sources suggest whoever gets the nod will probably be someone who meets with anchor Ed Bradley’s approval.

Lack said he wishes he had time for a vacation before jumping in at NBC. “I hope I get a tiny breather because I’m newly married, and my bride and I would like some time to hug before I start working very hard.”

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