Andy Lack's First Meeting at NBC News: Brian Williams Future in Doubt

Andrew Lack - P 2015

Andrew Lack - P 2015

Andrew Lack's return to NBC News as chairman, officially announced Friday morning, has been greeted with relief by the rank and file at the division, which has suffered a series of painful setbacks recently.

"It's exactly what the division needs," says one veteran NBC News producer. "Someone who can manage talent and someone who knows the news business."

NBC News president Deborah Turness introduced Lack, 67, at the 9 a.m. meeting as a "special guest," at which point Lack, who was in the hall, poked his head into the third-floor executive conference room. He then proceeded to personally introduce himself to each of the 50 or so people who were in the room, including several he already knew from his previous stint as president of NBC News in the 1990s.

Turness revealed that Lack has been "an advisor" to her, even before she took the job in 2013, and noted that they are in fact neighbors. They both live in Bronxville, a tony Westchester suburb just north of Manhattan. "We've spoken many times," she said, according to multiple sources who were in the room.

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Pat Fili-Krushel, whom Lack will take over for when he begins in April, joked that there was really nothing going on so she thought it was time to go back to the 51st floor, referring to the executive suites at NBC's 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters.

Also in the room were three standards people, human resources senior vp Joanne O'Brien and three MSNBC managing editors, but not network president Phil Griffin. And there were many more on the phone including executives from Telemundo, Weather Channel, E! News and CNBC. (Interestingly, Lack, unlike Fili-Krushel, will not have oversight of New Jersey-based CNBC; president Mark Hoffman will report directly to NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke.)

Lack shouted out: "How many hours is Dateline on now?" which got a laugh from those assembled. Executive producer Liz Cole offered that the newsmagazine had five hours of primetime real estate this week. Lack also weighed in on NBC's resources in the Middle East, asking if putting more stringers in the restive region would improve the network's coverage.

"I think there's a general feeling, or hope, that he will clear out this massive bureaucracy that's been put in place," said one executive. "There's so many people and no one's in charge, though everybody thinks they are. There's been so much focus on systems and process and not on what we're covering."

A common complaint about the current leadership is that they have installed a layer of highly compensated vice presidents, many of whom have little or no TV news experience, and shifted decision-making power from producers to human resources personnel.

"The producers have to ask [HR] to get things done. It's insane," says another NBC News veteran. "Marketing has a lot of power now. We have a lot of focus groups and a lot of consultants hanging around. It's hard to change that back. He's got to step in and get back to basics."

Lack also attended the 2:30 p.m. Nightly News meeting, say sources, and was asking questions about how the show is put together. His return to NBC News has been accompanied by widespread speculation that he'll work to rehabilitate Brian Williams, who is currently serving a six-month suspension while NBC investigates what appears to be a pattern of misrepresenting his experiences in the field.

But sources at NBC News say that Lack has not made up his mind about whether Williams should return. And many inside the division continue to believe that Williams will not be reinstated to the Nightly News and may not return to NBC News at all. (Lester Holt, who is anchoring Nightly, has held a slim lead over ABC's World News Tonight With David Muir.)

Ultimately the decision will be made by Burke. In announcing Williams' suspension on Feb. 10, Burke noted that Williams "deserves a second chance, and we are rooting for him."

But with a presidential election looming, many wonder how a tarnished Williams fits in. The evening newscasts are not significant revenue drivers like the morning programs, but they confer branding and gravitas, and at no time is that more critical than during presidential elections when evening news anchors are called on to moderate debates and challenge candidates on their records.

"How does he moderate a Republican debate?" wonders one NBC News source. "How does he interview Hillary Clinton?"

Lack is known to have a warm relationship with Williams as well as many of NBC's biggest stars, past and present, including Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira and Tom Brokaw. He's also maintained a friendship with Katie Couric; multiple reports have speculated that Couric could return to NBC News in some capacity and that Lack and Couric have even met in recent weeks, though sources close to Couric shoot down reports of a meeting.

Those who have worked with Lack note his larger-than-life personality and ability to inspire confidence in those above and below him, though they say he also can be mercurial. A redemption scenario for Williams is not impossible — and many suspect it would involve some sort of televised mea culpa on NBC — but NBC News insiders expect Lack to take the temperature of the wider news division before making any moves.

Adds an NBC News source: "I would be shocked if he came back."