Comcasting the news

NBC News put on a pedestal

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Brian Roberts has called it “the single most awesome asset” of NBC Universal. Comcast has vowed to protect and grow its operations.

Throughout the yearlong quest to secure regulatory approval for the Comcast-NBC U merger, Comcast execs cited their commitment to supporting the journalistic mission of NBC News as a key reason why the public interest would be served by the union of the Peacock and the nation’s largest cable operator.

As such, NBC News has now been put on a pedestal in the enlarged NBC U operation. The division is expected to undergo something of a renaissance as the company’s new corporate stewards try to live up to the high-minded promises made in the halls of Congress and the FCC. That dynamic puts NBC News in a unique position among its TV counterparts, almost all of which have been under pressure to rein in costs for years. Certainly the news wings of the Big Three networks have faced the challenge of becoming profit centers — or at least not money losers — since the late 1980s.

But NBC News, unlike CBS and ABC, is in hiring mode and is on top of the ratings.

“The news division is in a very strong position,” says Barbara Cochran, former executive producer of NBC’s “Meet the Press” and now a professor at the U. of Missouri journalism school. “I think there’s every reason for Comcast to say, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ ”

But now Comcast has something to prove, namely that it will invest in newsgathering and that it will not interfere with NBC News coverage even if it conflicts with the larger corporate agenda.

The sensitivity that Roberts and new NBC U CEO Steve Burke have toward NBC News was evident Jan. 21 when MSNBC’s signature star Keith Olbermann hastily announced his departure from the all-news cabler. By all accounts, Olbermann’s exit was unrelated to the Comcast takeover, despite the timing of his announcement, which came just days before the merger was skedded to formally close.

Comcast jumped on the issue, and released a statement asserting: “Comcast has not closed the transaction for NBC Universal and has no operational control at any of its properties including MSNBC. We pledged from the day the deal was announced that we would not interfere with NBC Universal’s news operations. We have not and we will not.”

Most observers, including those who opposed the merger, agree that Olbermann’s departure had nothing to do with Comcast.

The Olbermann affair highlighted the fact that Comcast execs, with no deep experience running a news division and a preference for staying under the radar, may find NBC News and MSNBC much harder to run than E! or the Golf Channel. And the Olbermann headlines have only increased expectations that Comcast will seek to make a major show of support for NBC News while the dust settles on the merger.

“We will be good to our word — and we will be respectful stewards of the strong and iconic assets of NBC Universal, particularly NBC News,” Comcast exec veep David Cohen wrote in a Jan. 18 memo outlining the final details of the company’s agreements with the FCC and Dept. of Justice.

At the national level, the management of NBC News is expected to remain unchanged under president Steve Capus, who has headed the division since 2005 and has been with NBC News since 1993.

Amid the turmoil at the NBC broadcast network, NBC News has remained solid. Despite the defection of Katie Couric to CBS, the retirement of Tom Brokaw and the death of Tim Russert, “Today,” “NBC Nightly News” and “Meet the Press” have remained on top of the ratings. MSNBC, once an also-ran in the cable wars, has found its competitive footing thanks to the leftward tilt driven by the success of Olbermann’s nightly “Countdown” broadcast.

That void in MSNBC’s lineup now presents an immediate challenge to Capus and MSNBC prexy Phil Griffin to maintain the cabler’s momentum with the personalities now peppering the cable news net, chiefly Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell and Ed Schultz.

Susan Crawford, a Cardozo Law School professor who is writing a book about the NBC-Comcast merger, says she expects no immediate change in NBC News.

“I think Comcast will see it’s in its best interest to maintain the status quo at NBC,” she says.

That status quo includes keeping MSNBC’s liberal posture.

“It would be wrong to say that Olbermann’s exit represents a change in programming philosophy,” Cochran says. “At the same time, this demonstrates that no matter how good the ratings, NBC News executives will determine when a host has crossed the line.”

NBC News declined to comment for this story, as did Comcast Corp., which until the deal closes has no operational control over NBC.

Certainly Comcast is saying all the right things. Burke was at the NBC News upfront presentation last week, and spent 20 minutes backstage talking with MSNBC host Maddow.

Yet Comcast has sometimes run into controversy on the news side. In 2008, Comcast fired Barry Nolan, an anchor on its cabler CN8, after Nolan voiced displeasure over Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly getting a local TV award. Nolan sued. Comcast won.

Politically, some suggest Comcast might be uneasy with MSNBC’s primetime lineup. Roberts and Burke have contributed to GOP candidates as well as Democrats. Comcast also has an interest in making sure it doesn’t run afoul of regulators.

But Crawford noted that Comcast’s distribution business depends on having top channels like ESPN and Fox News in its lineup.

“There is a concern that Comcast will want to be very polite to their sister oligopolies like Fox and not be edgy,” she says. “Right now, MSNBC is providing the only response to Fox News. You can’t be a pay TV distributor without Fox News.”

Sources close to Comcast say that the company takes seriously its pledge for NBC News’ editorial independence and points to its many commitments to regulators. Comcast’s Cohen, in a December 2009 letter about the merger, said the company would continue corporate policy that ensures non-media corporate interests of GE and Comcast do not influence NBC News.

One of the commitments Comcast made to the FCC was to dramatically expand the volume of local news and informational programming produced by NBC and Telemundo-owned stations by 1,000 hours a year.

That pledge addressed the news question and also the concerns that the enlarged NBC U would be less attuned to the local needs of viewers in NBC and Telemundo O&O markets.

To assuage fears raised by watchdog orgs, Comcast further pledged that at least five of the 10 NBC O&Os would strike partnerships with what it termed “hyper-local news organizations.”

The commitment calls for the NBC stations to provide financial support and resources to “locally focused, nonprofit news organizations relevant to each such station’s market and/or region” in a news-sharing partnership. This provision has spurred media focus on the prospects of nonprofit news orgs filling the void in local and investigative news reporting, and has drawn rave reviews and hopes for the future.

Cardozo’s Crawford thinks the nonprofit news deal could be a lasting legacy of the merger.

“It may be (that) the future of news is not ad-driven, that it really is a nonprofit business if anybody is going to do investigative reporting (at the local level),” Crawford says. “This nonprofit news element is genuinely in the public interest.”

But observers say that only time will tell if NBC News and MSNBC will be impacted by the change in corporate ownership.

T. Barton Carter, a professor of mass communication at Boston U., takes politics out of the equation when considering why Comcast would realign a successful MSNBC.

“If you basically abandon a segment of the market that you previously staked out, and try to (move to) another, that doesn’t necessarily make good business sense,” Carter says.