Oppenheim was named president of NBC News in February of 2017 and had been cited publicly by former NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke as his choice to succeed Andy Lack, the chairman of MSNBC and NBC News. He rose quickly through the ranks thanks to his touch with the company’s venerable “Today” morning franchise, which has become newsier and more direct under his watch. His “Today” captures the bulk of viewers between 25 and 54, the audience most coveted by advertisers, beating rival “Good Morning America” at ABC. And that in turn helped the program’s first two hours snare $332 million in advertising in 2018, according to ad-tracker Standard Media Index.
Oppenheim will be paired with a new superior, Cesar Conde, an up-and coming executive who is a generation younger than Lack and is likely to focus more intently on the business of not just NBC News, but also MSNBC and CNBC. All three are being rolled up together for the first time since 2015, when Pat Fili-Krushel stepped back from running the company’s news operations. Shell’s predecessor, Steve Burke, allowed CNBC to run independently after it became obvious that Mark Hoffman, CNBC’s president, and Lack had a strained relationship and would never consent to work together, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Though NBC News has endured controversies over the past few years, it is a big business for NBCUniversal and could become more so as TV habits change. As more consumers opt to watch their favorite comedy or drama via streaming video, live news and sports will become the TV networks’ most reliable tool to capture big crowds who cannot skip past ads. In recent months, NBC News has launched a streaming-video service, NBC News Now, as well as a kids’ version of “NBC Nightly News” on YouTube, and had plans to work with Peacock, the parent company’s streaming-video subscription service.
Navigating some of that distribution, and the potential revenue behind it, is likely to be managed by Conde. That will leave Oppenheim to focus on programs such as “Today,” “NBC Nightly News,” “Meet the Press “and “Dateline.” A person familiar with the company suggested Oppenheim was ready to embrace his role. NBC News declined to make the executive available for comment.
Oppenheim has faced criticism in recent months. His handling of NBC News’ decision to part ways with journalist Ronan Farrow rather than televise his reporting on sexual-assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein has been questioned multiple times, particularly after Farrow alleged NBC News tried to scuttle his work in the book “Catch and Kill.” Oppenheim pushed back against the claims and NBC News noted it had worked with Farrow for months to find a way to bring his reporting to light. “Not only is this false, the so-called evidence Farrow uses in his book to support the charge collapses under the slightest scrutiny,” he said in a memo to staff in October. “We have no secrets and nothing to hide,” he added. “Catch and Kill” was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award.
The clash frayed nerves within the news organization, according to two people with knowledge of NBC News operations. Some employees were demoralized by the fact NBC News didn’t get the scoop on Weinstein, particularly after employees endured the ouster of former “Today” co-anchor Matt Lauer in 2017 over charges of sexual harassment, and then a subsequent investigation into the culture at NBC News.
But Oppenheim has internal support from influential people, including “Today” anchors Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb as well as much of the staff of “Today,” where he has had final responsibility for more than 20 hours of TV each week. He has promoted many female executives during his time, and NBC News has women in executive-producer roles at every hour of weekday “Today” and “NBC Nightly News.” Liz Cole, a top producer at “Dateline,” was recently made president of a new NBC News studio devoted to documentary programming.
Oppenheim could find he has more responsibility in his current role, not less. Lack was known to have a strong hand in overseeing several NBC News properties, and Oppenheim continued to show a strong interest in “Today” even as his role within the organization grew larger.
He faces challenges not related to the morning program, such as a battle between “NBC Nightly News” and ABC’s “World News Tonight,” which has moved ahead in the battle to capture the 25 to 54 audience.
He will also have to lead an employee base that could be rattled in days ahead by concerns about layoffs as CNBC is moved back into the news group. One person familiar with the news division believes the demand for news programming during the coronavirus pandemic may give the company’s news staffers some breathing room, though this person acknowledges executives could look to streamline back-office and technical processes and even look at duplicate operations. Both NBC News and CNBC have in recent months hired reporters focused on digital venues who cover such topics as media, technology and politics.
Ultimately, Comcast is getting the structure it wanted for news after it first took control of NBCUniversal in 2011: one news unit rather than three. As with people who have held the job before him, executive such as Steve Capus and Deborah Turness, Oppenheim must navigate terrain that continues to shift.