NBC News braces for the ax

Division tries to hold ratings lead amid uncertainty

It survived the retirement of Tom Brokaw, the defection of Katie Couric and a meltdown in primetime. But can NBC News survive Six Sigma?

With its top-rated shows, well-known correspondents and a sprawling portfolio of networks, NBC News has dominated the past decade in the ratings.

Even troubled MSNBC, perpetually in search of a winning formula against Fox and CNN, is a financial success in that it’s produced on-the-cheap, bolted onto the network’s infrastructure with its vast network of bureaus.

But now GE has applied its vaunted process for rooting out management defects to bring NBC U back to double-digit profit growth. And apparently, it has found the most inefficiency in the news operations, where as many as 300 positions are expected to be cut by the beginning of next year.

A week after NBC U TV prexy Jeff Zucker announced the implications of NBC U 2.0 — a 5% cut in headcount across the board — NBC News prexy Steve Capus met with various newsies under his control and has traveled to the West Coast to talk to staffers there.

At this point, Capus is taking volunteers for buyouts, after which more concrete decisions will be made as to how many layoffs occur and where.

For the network, the stakes could hardly be higher. NBC News is steward of franchises such as “Today,” “Nightly News” and “Meet the Press,” all No. 1 in their dayparts.

All three proved resistant to NBC’s decline in primetime, and many analysts attribute the strength of NBC’s local stations to the strength of “Today,” which like “Nightly News” has spent more than a decade in first place.

But those positions are not invulnerable. “Nightly News With Brian Williams,” for example, is in a much tighter race this fall than last year.

For the week of Oct. 16-20, Williams kept the total-viewer lead with 8.6 million, but ABC’s “World News” was a close second (8.4 million) and won the 25-54 demo, while CBS (7.6 million) was only 1 million viewers behind.

The restructuring has already been set in motion. The network is building out two floors at 30 Rockefeller Center for MSNBC, which will include the 24-hour news desk headed by David Verdi.

“Countdown With Keith Olbermann” will be moved to 30 Rock, as will the control room for “Hardball With Chris Matthews.” “Imus in the Morning” will move to CNBC headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

As MSNBC is merged into 30 Rock, insiders expect consolidation of production staffs, meaning probable layoffs of bookers, cameramen and producers. MSNBC doesn’t have a lot of high-priced talent, and there may be cases where an MSNBC employee replaces one at NBC News.

“When GE looked at MSNBC, and looked at the amount of work product turned out vs. staffing, it was very lean,” says one staffer.

Since Capus became president of NBC News, the network has added bureaus in Beijing, Bangkok, Beirut and New Orleans. But he’s looking at ways the existing domestic bureaus — network and cable — can be merged with local stations to bring efficiencies.

The network is consolidating the operations of NBC News, KNBC and KVEA in Burbank, Calif. And CNBC’s L.A. bureau, now at Universal CityWalk, may be folded back into Burbank, where it was until April.

Unlike MSNBC, CNBC has its own bureaus, many of which will be merged with local NBC-owned stations. CNBC’s Silicon Valley bureau likely will be merged with KNTV in San Jose, while CNBC’s Chicago bureau likely will move in with WMAQ; its D.C. bureau with WRC.

But sources predicted the cuts to CNBC would amount to tinkering around the edges. The network is keeping its own facility, and its on-air talent is being kept largely in place as cabler girds for the arrival of Fox Business Channel, expected early next year.

With all its networks, shows and bureaus, NBC U news personnel tend to flood the zone on every story, generating what must appear like a blot on the balance sheet to the Six Sigma suits giving NBC U a workover.

When the congressional page at the center of the Mark Foley molestation story met with the FBI in Oklahoma City, for example, producers from “Today,” “Nightly News,” “Dateline” and MSNBC all staked out the courthouse for what turned out to be a one-minute statement from the young man’s lawyer.

During the Amish school shootings in Pennsylvania, Capus told staff, only half-facetiously, that the sheriff probably got more separate calls from NBC U bookers –from MSNBC to NBC News to local stations — than all the other media combined.

Consolidating some of these functions would seem to be a no-brainer, but there could be pitfalls, and too much combining could affect the uniqueness of individual shows.

As competitive as the morning-show landscape is, would “Today” ever outsource on either of those stories?

“The downside is ‘GMA’ shows up and gets a sit-down interview; then we lose,” says one staffer.

Yet there’s a sense that the walls must come down to some extent, and editorial employees have to be more versatile in terms of the shows and networks to which they feed material.

This, essentially, is how “Dateline” has been instructed it will pay its way, by producing long-form segments for all NBC News units.

The show will likely become more active in producing for MSNBC, which has switched to taped programming for two hours of primetime.

“We are already doing a lot of stuff for other clients, which needs to be reflected in the accounting,” says one “Dateline” staffer.

As Zucker and Capus make the cuts, it may expose a digital divide in the company where employees will be judged by their efficiency and track record of producing for multiple platforms.

“Technology is improving so rapidly, you can find cuts by just taking advantage of all the improvements coming in,” says news analyst Andrew Tyndall.

At the same time, some journalists fear corporate tolerance for investigative pieces — the kind that take weeks and sometimes win Emmys — will be casualties.

Still others believe the changes, however painful they may be, are long overdue.

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