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Can NBC’s Savvy Brit Deborah Turness Wake Up ‘Today’

Peacock’s incoming news wing prexy impressed in U.K. by helping ITN stay above the scandal fray

About 25 years ago, Deborah Turness was working in Paris as an intern for the British Channel 4 News show when she secured a scoop that helped kick-start her TV career.

It was election time and anchor Jon Snow had asked Turness, a U. of France graduate, to nab an interview with French president Jacques Chirac.

Not only did the enterprising Turness land the interview the same day, she persuaded the haughty French leader to speak in English for the camera.

“It was quite a coup,” recalls Stewart Purvis, Turness’ former boss at U.K. news provider ITN.

The Chirac interview was an early example of the resourcefulness and quick thinking that helped Turness rise to the top of Britain’s broadcast journalism sector and attract the attention of NBCUniversal execs across the Pond. Turness, 46, was named prexy of NBC News on May 20. She will become the first woman to run a major network news division in the U.S. when she starts the job in August.

Rumors that the British high-flyer was leaving London for New York had been rife at ITN’s newsroom for weeks. Yet when colleagues were officially told she was quitting ITN, some of them found it difficult to hold back tears.

“Deborah is someone who makes an immediate impression,” Purvis says.

Turness is well known in British media circles for her charisma and self-confidence. She’s not afraid to be ruthless when the occasion demands, colleagues say. But she’s moving to NBC at a time of turmoil inside the Peacock’s news division in particular and the biz in general.

Job one for Turness undoubtedly will be righting the ship at NBC’s profitable ayemcast “Today,” which has been rattled by a deluge of stories about behind-the-scenes strife involving Matt Lauer.

Turness is not a complete stranger to NBC News execs. The Peacock and ITN, which in the U.K. produces news for terrestrial webs ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, have had a content-sharing pact for several years. During the 2011 royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, NBC’s coverage orginated from ITN’s HQ in central London.

She will oversee all breaking news, investigative and enterprise reporting, plus the division’s digital properties, which include NBCNews.com, and the Peacock Prods. shingle. Unlike her predecessor, Steve Capus, she will not have responsibility over siblings the cablers MSNBC and CNBC.

Turness’ appointment is a milestone for femme journos in the U.S., and even more notable that she reports to a female boss, NBCUniversal News Group chairman Patricia Fili-Krushel.

An early priority will be to improve the perf of “Today” in the morning-show wars, where ABC’s “Good Morning America” is ahead in the ratings and Lauer is expected to depart when his contract expires at the end of next year.

Turness has a mixed track record when it comes to managing the balance of news, lifestyle and celeb-friendly segments that characterize morning TV.

No one can deny the role she played in helping to lead the recent renaissance at ITN, where Turness has been editor of ITV News since 2004, but her one big job outside ITN was not a success.

In 2002 Turness was hired to rescue failing U.K. breakfast show “RI:SE,” broadcast by Channel 4 and made by indie Princess Prods. The program lacked direction and failed to win a viable audience. Turness quit the show after less than six months as a series producer on “RI:SE,” returning to ITN as deputy editor of ITV News. Channel 4 axed “RI:SE” the following year, by which time Turness was safely back at helping ITN give the BBC a run for its money.

“I have no doubt about her ability to edit a nightly news show,” says a colleague, “but reinventing “Today” will require very different skills to the ones she’s used to exercising.”

Simon Shaps, ITV’s director of television, credits the news topper for helping to ensure that ITN’s journalism remained untainted while reputations at News Corp in the U.K. and the BBC were respectively damaged by phone hacking and sex scandals involving talent. She was known to be ahead of the curve in pressing the news org to embrace digital extensions of its newsgathering mission.

“By being a digital evangelist, Deborah’s succeeded in modernizing ITN and leading it through the multiplatform challenges,” Shaps says.

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