In hindsight, the circuitous and bumpy path that brought NBC News back to old pro Andrew Lack can be traced to an especially jaundiced view of broadcast news – namely, that the traditional model is so broken only an outsider can be trusted with the process of reinventing it.
Certainly, ABC enjoyed success by reaching beyond the usual suspects to tap Ben Sherwood, whose stratospheric rise propelled him from the news division to oversee the network group. Yet that turnaround under Sherwood – who had experience as a network insider, which he used to further lobotomize “Good Morning America,” then extend its soft-news values elsewhere – might be a case of the exception that proves the rule.
NBC fell for the myth of the gunslinger, someone who can come in and clean up a lawless town. That included putting NBC News under Deborah Turness, a Briton who previously worked at ITV; and NBC Universal news group chief Pat Fili-Krushel, a longtime entertainment executive, whose turf also included MSNBC and CNBC. (Fili-Krushel will stay in the Comcast fold, while Lack assumes her oversight responsibilities.)
The outsider impulse, however, didn’t end there. In its most disastrous manifestation, Turness hired an ESPN alum, Jamie Horowitz, to oversee the “Today” show, engineering changes designed to regain the No. 1 ratings spot the franchise had ceded to “GMA.”
Horowitz lasted less than three months, quickly wearing out his welcome by reportedly ruffling the feathers of news personnel.
Underlying all of this is a suspicion in corner offices that journalists are too hidebound by tradition – as well as concerned about matters that have nothing to do with the bottom line, like ethics and the public interest – to undertake the sort of changes that are necessary to ensure their long-term survival. Nor, it should be noted, is this mentality limited to TV, as witnessed by Tribune’s disastrous experimentation under then-owner Sam Zell, who disdained old-guard journalism and seemed to think radio executives and slogan-slinging ad gurus held the keys to newspapers’ future.
As so often happens, though, handing the management reins to an outsider not only creates suspicion (usually with reason) among the rank-and-file staff but doesn’t necessarily fare any better in addressing the modern challenges that journalists face. Indeed, Sherwood cut his teeth as a news producer, which – despite his time in the entrepreneurial wilderness – at least gave him standing with vital talent, like Diane Sawyer, to move ABC News in a different direction.
Not all the crises that have beset NBC News, to be fair, have been of the division’s making. But the sheer weight of them, and the sluggish response (witness the slow-motion changing of the guard at “Meet the Press”), has at best suggested a poor grasp of the heightened scrutiny news divisions still receive and the headaches they can produce for their corporate overseers, in this case, Comcast.
That doesn’t mean Lack, or anyone, has an instant fix for the messes he’s inheriting. But after a period spent looking for a savior armed with a magic wand like that kid in its theme parks, NBC Universal might be on the right track by turning to somebody who at least can claim the requisite experience handling a shovel.