NBC News President Noah Oppenheim has been battling Ronan Farrow in recent and disturbing headlines, but the executive remains the most likely candidate to succeed NBC News and MSNBC Chairman Andy Lack, according to people familiar with the matter.
Lack, who has seen NBC News through one of its most tumultuous eras, has a contract that runs through 2020, according to these people. He could negotiate to remain with NBCUniversal for a subsequent period or stay on in some other capacity, but Oppenheim is widely seen as his successor. NBCU CEO Steve Burke first put forward that notion in January when he told Variety that Oppenheim “is going to end up running NBC News after Andy retires.”
The two executives’ stints at NBC News (both have worked there in previous tenures) have dovetailed with controversy. They have managed teams through the departure of Billy Bush; an effort to launch two new shows with Megyn Kelly; the firing of Matt Lauer; and, more recently, allegations made by author Ronan Farrow that NBC News tried to stifle his efforts to report on sexual harassment allegations made against Harvey Weinstein. NBC News has pushed back against those assertions and disputed several of Farrow’s key findings. Farrow has said he stands by his reporting.
At the same time, MSNBC and NBC News have turned in solid business performance during their tenure. NBC News flagship shows, “Today,” “NBC Nightly News,” “Dateline” and “Meet the Press,” have led in the 25-to-54 audience demo for four consecutive seasons. And MSNBC has gained new traction by shifting much of its dayside programming to straight-news reporting. The network has seen advertising commitments rise in the industry’s past two “upfront” sales sessions. Lack, who has a history of taking big business swings, has revived Brian Williams’ career after a gaffe he made about his time reporting in Iraq led to his dismissal from “Nightly News.” He has won back some respect as a late-night anchor at MSNBC.
Oppenheim’s rise would continue a longstanding trend in the TV-news business. Executives who can improve the performance of morning programs at the various networks are typically elevated to higher positions. Oppenheim rejoined NBC News in 2015 and helped wring better ratings in the demographic most coveted by advertisers in news programming from the first two hours of NBC’s “Today Show.” Morning programs are responsible for capturing millions of dollars in advertising revenue, and often fuel a network’s entire news division.
The industry is filled with executives who were given broader responsibilities after moving the needle on morning performance. Jeff Zucker, the former NBCU CEO and now chairman of news and sports at AT&T’s WarnerMedia, had some of his first success overseeing “Today.” Chris Licht, who oversees CBS’ “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” helped build new morning-news franchises at “Morning Joe” and “CBS This Morning.” Ben Sherwood, who helped ABC’s “Good Morning America” beat “Today” in a heated ratings race while president of ABC News, became head of Disney’s entertainment operations for a period of time. More recently, Fox News Media named Lauren Petterson, a longtime supervisor of “Fox & Friends,” as the new president of Fox Business Network.