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This story first appeared in the March 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Here’s your answer: Brian Williams is coming back. That’s the meaning of the March 6 return of Andrew Lack as NBC News chief and the disappearance of current news division chief Pat Fili-Krushel.
After all, there hardly is an NBC News without Williams. There is no ready successor to him (and probably never will be), nor ratings-winning audience without him. And hardly any NBC News brand. As damaged as he is, he’s better than nothing. Fact is, you can no longer create an evening news anchor. That’s a vanishing resource.
In a certain sense, you may no longer be able to create a network news chief, either. Not that mix of news chops, high authority, TV savvy, suity charm, liberal-establishment-Manhattan-media bona fides, and in-the-trenches bonhomie and rapport. You know the part.
Lack ran NBC News from 1993 to 2001. He was brought in by Tom Brokaw; he eased out Bryant Gumbel in favor of Matt Lauer; he shepherded Williams; he launched MSNBC (when it seemed, briefly, cool). Under Lack, NBC News was No. 1 in all its key parts: evening news with Brokaw, Today with Lauer and Katie Couric, and Meet the Press with Tim Russert. Then Lack got promoted to run the whole network — and it became parent GE’s best performing unit. But then, in television fashion, he got squeezed by the guy above him, Bob Wright, whose job Lack wanted, and the guy below him, Jeff Zucker, who wanted Lack’s job. In 2003, Lack went into the wilderness and so, arguably, did NBC and NBC News.
But while NBC News may have steadily weakened and have been taken over by Comcast and its pale executives, its pillars, however diminished, remained: Lauer and Williams (Couric had quit, and Russert had died). There was no new NBC News.
Of course, this failure to move on — to new faces, to a digital era, to a new way to organize and leverage news assets (network news and cable news still share little crossover) — is part of NBC’s present problems. But you might see it in another way, as a stubborn resistance to a necessarily smaller future. Williams, however tarnished, stands for what television news once was, and Fili-Krushel and her lieutenant Deborah Turness came to stand for a faceless, ever-downgraded future.
When the scandal over Williams’ Iraq war stories broke, Lauer, out of both personal loyalty and grasping the brand issues, became Williams’ defender. Lauer recruited Lack to the defense. Then Lauer became a driving force in pushing Lack in front of NBCUniversal chairman Steve Burke as a substantive news presence — in juxtaposition to Fili-Krushel and Turness.
It’s a contrast impossible to miss. Lack is the network news chief role. He knows everybody and has been to every cocktail party ever given. He’s aggressively smart and funny — and a sharp gossip. He has made his career at the intersection of power and public life, and he knows where the bodies are buried and how cultured managers and executives should function. He is, of course, an adept social climber. He veers to the unkempt and disheveled but, as well, to the dapper, in high contrast shoes. He’s a player and a presence. He’s Lyndon Johnson-like — his arms slide easily around your shoulders. For better or worse, he’s a man’s newsman.
Fili-Krushel perhaps is most famous for when her teleprompter went dead at an upfront presentation, leaving her with nothing to say. When she does talk, she is a corporate-speak person, ever the out-of-town visitor from Comcast.
While Fili-Krushel is Burke’s designated factotum, with crisis after crisis at the news division, it would be impossible for Burke not to be reassured by Lack. The story goes that when Brokaw brought Lack, then at CBS and interviewing for the Evening News executive producer job, in to meet GE chairman Jack Welch, Welch said, “What the hell, this guy should be running the whole place.”
It is a vastly different place, of course, that Lack returns to. TV news was the center of the world the last time Lack was here, a world that hardly included Fox or digital. How many nights Dateline should be on was the big worry. Now the news division is stripped down and challenged, unsure of its mission, function or identity. It’s a punch line.
The digital age has neither been kind to TV news nor to Lack, 67. After NBC, Lack took over Sony Music — just as the music business was cratering — only to see it merged with Bertelsmann’s music division and Lack kicked upstairs. He went to Bloomberg as a kind of eminence but an equivocal one overshadowed by Matt Winkler, the real Bloomberg eminence, and then usurped by The Atlantic‘s Justin Smith, brought in to provide digital vision.
The obvious rap against Lack is that, looking at the digital future, it is difficult to imagine him getting there. And yet, perhaps more to the point, it is difficult to imagine what that digital future actually is for TV news. It might not have one. Hence, if the future is equivocal, or nonexistent, a reasonable strategy might be to manage the past better, to be what you are for as long as you can be.
If Lack can re-establish Today (not an easy job), he’s a hero. If he rehabilitates Williams — and as the sagacious outsider, he can seem to objectively weigh and discharge Williams’ sins — and the Nightly ratings, he’s a giant.
It’s a proper sort of valedictory to return to what you do and, if only for old times’ sake, do it again.
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