NBC Crises Leave Comcast Guys Looking Flat-Footed

Handling of 'Today,' 'Tonight Show' talent flaps raises Steve Burke-level questions

When the Comcast guys took over NBC, they seemed like a breath of fresh air for the beleaguered network.

Industry insiders gave especially high marks to NBCUniversal’s new CEO, Steve Burke — not only an ABC and Disney veteran, but someone weaned in the business inasmuch as his father, Dan, was part of the no-nonsense management team that enjoyed so much success at CapCities/ABC.

General Electric, after all, wasn’t a pure entertainment company. By contrast, Comcast was hedging its bets on the vagaries of cable distribution by plunging into content, and thus had every incentive to tirelessly rebuild the network and maximize the company’s combined assets.

After a spate of recent headlines — detailing the internecine warfare surrounding Matt Lauer on “Today” to the ham-fisted handling of the latest attempt to nudge Jay Leno out of the “Tonight Show” throne — one has to wonder whether the management is either in too much of a hurry, or has bitten off more than it can chew. To use an analogy offered by a colleague, it’s OK if you buy a house with a roof that needs to be fixed. But why immediately take on remodeling the master bedroom and the bathrooms at the same time – especially if they’re livable – unless you want the place to at least temporarily appear to be in a total shambles?

In that context, the reasoning by top brass to potentially undertake major changes to dayparts where the network’s in a much better competitive position than primetime – namely, latenight and the morning – remains a mystery perhaps only Burke, as the guy who’s ultimately responsible, can explain.

NBC might have gotten its “Voice” back in primetime, providing a renewed spark of life after the high hopes (premature, in hindsight) raised by its relative performance during the fall. Still, the network continues to face formidable challenges, as was underscored by the brutal three-month stretch in which it had to survive without the singing competition series or “Sunday Night Football.”

Granted, these sprawling companies must be able to pat their heads and rub their stomachs at the same time. “Today” also falls under the aegis of the news division, whereas “The Tonight Show With [TBD]” reports to entertainment.

Nevertheless, contemplating personnel moves pertaining to both franchises – as has been reported, albeit with denials regarding the “Where in the world is Matt Lauer going to be next year?” question – seems like asking for trouble, or at the very least, failing to recognize how unsettled and panicky action on those twin fronts would make the network appear from the outside.

“Today” might have yielded its dearly held perch as the top-rated morning program to the happy hijinks on “Good Morning America,” but it’s still a highly valuable piece of real estate. And all the bad publicity about Lauer and the replacement of Ann Curry is mostly fodder for media wags, not the masses, who don’t necessarily hang on every word in New York magazine.

As for “The Tonight Show,” as I’ve stated before, despite the fear of ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel establishing himself and the desire to designate Jimmy Fallon as the host of the future, jimmying with the daypart’s most-watched franchise – particularly when Leno is getting so little help from NBC’s 10 p.m. lead-ins – exhibits a poor sense of prioritizing.

Finally, there’s the mishandling in allowing both stories, or even murky parts of them, to leak at such a less-than-decisive stage in the process. Lauer might very well be at “Today” for another decade, but the current coverage and response only further destabilizes the program, and (as has been true regarding latenight) subjects PR folk to a drubbing that can damage credibility and exhaust goodwill.

Rumors do have a way of circulating during the spring – the proximity to upfront presentations always has networks contemplating announcements to wow advertisers – but the tight ship Comcast had developed a reputation of running currently resembles a leaky rowboat.

For now, thanks to all the oars Comcast has in the water, it’s still seaworthy. But here’s a newsflash: Those fins circling? They’re not playful dolphins.

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