The eye of the peacock is considered by many to be a harbinger of good luck, its brilliant plume a source of pride.
But given the jarring developments that hit NBC in the late afternoon of Sept. 21, just as the weekend approached, neither truism would apply to the broadcast network known in industry tradespeak as the Peacock.
Just as Variety broke the news that NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt was planning to leave NBCUniversal, prompted in part by his frustration with corporate management, The Daily Beast simultaneously published a report claiming that embattled NBC News chief Andrew Lack did not respond forcefully to sexual misconduct allegations that festered at the network, including those leveled at former star anchor Matt Lauer.
NBCUniversal negotiated Greenblatt’s exit agreement over the weekend, and announced Sept. 24 that the executive would be succeeded by two company veterans — George Cheeks and Paul Telegdy.
Lack’s fate at NBC is unclear, but many industry insiders are predicting that his forced departure may be imminent. The Daily Beast report alleged Lack, in a previous job as chairman and CEO of Sony BMG Music, protected music executive Charlie Walk, who had sent explicit sexual email messages to female employees. NBC denied the allegations in the story.
If these alleged gaffes have prompted hand-wringing in the NBCUniversal corporate suite, the company’s top executive won’t say so in public. After The Daily Beast story surfaced, NBCU chief executive Steve Burke said in a statement that Lack “has my complete support. We have worked together closely for over three years during which I have watched him oversee NBC News with great integrity, sound judgment and a focus on doing what’s right. I look forward to continuing to work with Andy and to his continued success as the leader of NBC News.”
Word of the Greenblatt departure came as a shock to many in Hollywood given the unquestioned success the exec has had at NBC, where he renewed his contract just a year ago. Last summer, Greenblatt appeared set to continue his stewardship there for the foreseeable future. Already the longest tenured broadcast head in recent memory, he signed a multiyear extension, quashing whispers that he was ready to step back from TV and focus more energy on his passion for theater. (A producer on “Hamilton,” Greenblatt has won two Tony Awards.)
But Greenblatt became frustrated that same year by what he perceived as foot dragging on the part of NBCUniversal management in renewing the contract of Jennifer Salke, his top lieutenant. Salke was agitated too. Coming off the massive success of “This Is Us,” she had established herself as one of television’s most respected programmers. When Roy Price was fired as head of Amazon Studios that fall amid sexual harassment allegations, Salke made her interest in the job known and landed it in February. She has moved quickly to set deals with top talent such as Jordan Peele, Nicole Kidman and Barry Jenkins.
Greenblatt, in the process, saw a top consigliere and personal friend walk out the door, and began to consider whether it might herald the end of a chapter. By leaving now, he does what almost no broadcast chief ever does — leave on top, on his own terms. For his successor, it appears there is nowhere to go but down. Despite a healthier-than-anticipated upfront ad market this year, broadcasters face declining linear ratings driven by digital competition and audience fragmentation. On a corporate level, traditional media giants are beginning to realize that challenging Netflix with their own direct-to-consumer products — as Walt Disney Co. and AT&T are preparing to do — may be a better bet than relying on the traditional TV ecosystem that for decades drove huge revenue.
Cheeks has seen his star rise quickly at NBCUniversal, where he was promoted to NBC Entertainment president of late night in 2016, then named co-head of Universal Cable Prods. nine months ago. Telegdy arrived at NBC two years prior to Greenblatt’s arrival and has shepherded ratings hits such as “The Voice,” “America’s Got Talent” and “American Ninja Warrior.” Though both are respected, neither has significant recent experience developing comedy or drama series. Salke’s departure saw Lisa Katz and Tracey Pakosta take over as the network’s top scripted executives. They are now heading into their first cycle leading development.
NBC News, meanwhile, is supposed to be in the business of generating headlines. But the unit can’t stop from being caught in them.
Since Brian Williams stepped down under a cloud from “NBC Nightly News” in 2015, the division has been thrust into an unenviable number of controversies. Sitting on a blockbuster video of Donald Trump talking about sexual assault? Check. Letting an exclusive probe of harassment claims against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein become the property of a rival news outlet? Check. Enduring embarrassing claims of unwanted sexual behavior against household personalities like Lauer and Tom Brokaw? Check.
“NBC is filled with hardworking and dedicated journalists — I know, I worked there myself earlier in my career — but these scandals have made news-gathering much harder for NBC,” says Mark Feldstein, chair of broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
Much of the business of NBC News continues to perform well. MSNBC’s ad volume soared 30% during the industry’s recent upfront, and NBC News flagship shows “Today,” “Meet the Press,” “NBC Nightly News” and “Dateline” have continued under Lack’s tenure to lead rivals in the demographic for which advertisers pay most, people between 25 and 54.
The unit’s credibility has ebbed in recent months. Some critics lay both dynamics — both positive and negative — at the feet of Lack, who arrived in 2015 for a second tour of duty leading NBC News and MSNBC. Since his arrival, Lack has goosed MSNBC with a new hard-news programming lineup and lent his TV programs juice by ramping up 24/7 digital newsgathering. He’s also presided over a dizzying number of debacles that NBC News has yet to truly dispel.
New ones keep erupting. The Daily Beast’s Sept. 21 story alleged that Lack has a history of being slow to act when allegations of harassing behavior by employees under his supervision have been brought to him, and claimed his friendships with veteran anchors and producers may have delayed his response to recent ones.
NBC News has been criticized multiple times in recent months for its handling of sensitive stories related to sexual harassment. It declined, for example, to air an explosive segment by journalist Ronan Farrow and investigative producer Rich McHugh that revealed accusations of untoward behavior by Weinstein. Farrow took that reporting to The New Yorker, where it won him a Pulitzer Prize. “There were multiple executives involved in the decision to stop our reporting,” said McHugh in a statement. “Each [was] in some way complicit in the silencing of victims.” NBC News has said an extensive review of Farrow’s reporting found that it wasn’t sufficient for airing at the time it was presented, largely because it did not include someone willing to go on the record about allegations on camera.
NBC News faced similar opprobrium in the fall of 2016 when it was scooped by The Washington Post on the existence of a tape from “Access Hollywood” — a show that also falls under the NBCUniversal umbrella — featuring a younger Donald Trump making lewd remarks about women and acknowledging he felt he had carte blanche to grab them by their genitals.
When Lack, now 71, arrived for his first tour at NBC News in 1993, the division had suffered a black eye in the wake of a report on “Dateline” in which producers admitted to rigging a pickup truck to catch fire as part of a story on General Motors trucks. GM in turn sued NBC for defamation. Lack reinvigorated the news organization. He has made similar efforts in his second stint, but that activity will likely continue to be obscured, says journalism professor Feldstein. “The blow to NBC’s integrity has demoralized its news staff,” he says, “and put its leadership into a defensive crouch” that can only be fixed with additional transparency.