The guessing game of who will replace Steve Capus as president of NBC News began immediately after Capus announced — via a lengthy and heartfelt email to NBC News personnel on Friday morning — that he’d made the “extremely difficult decision to walk away from a place that has been the backdrop for everything in my life since 1993.”
There are several internal candidates who could take the reins at the news division, including MSNBC president Phil Griffin, CNBC president Mark Hoffman, NBC News senior vice president Antoine Sanfuentes (recently elevated from DC bureau chief), chief digital officer Vivian Schiller (who joined NBC News last year after a somewhat rocky exit as CEO of NPR) and NBC News senior vice president Alex Wallace (who had been Capus’ number two and, last November, was given executive oversight over Today and Rock Center. And with Capus’ departure, she adds Nightly News to her portfolio). There are conceivably multiple external candidates; the usual suspects who have held executive jobs at news divisions including former ABC News president David Westin.
But running a news division in the digital era means managing the contraction seen across the industry. And Capus alluded to this in his exit letter. “I have tried to shield our journalists from the tough economic pressures, hoping that would give each of you the running room to focus solely on a commitment to outstanding journalism,” he wrote.
And the NBC News job in particular is somewhat diminished with the arrival last summer of Pat Fili-Krushel as the head of a streamlined management structure that brought the assets of NBC News — including CNBC, MSNBC and the digital operations — under one umbrella. It was this management layering that put Capus and Hoffman under Fili-Krushel instead of NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke, which precipitated Capus’ resignation. Multiple sources close to Capus say that the new three-year contract he signed last year stipulated that he would continue to report to Burke.
Speculation is rampant that Capus could reunite with Jeff Zucker at CNN. It was Zucker who, as NBCUniversal CEO, tapped Capus to run NBC News in 2005. The two men have maintained a good relationship. And CNN has been on a hiring spree of late, adding Chris Cuomo and Jake Tapper from ABC News, while former CNN executive Mark Whitaker (who came to the cable news network from NBC News) himself resigned on Tuesday. There is chatter that Capus would be a good fit to get the fledgling Al Jazeera America off the ground when it takes over Al Gore’s Current this spring. But sources close to Capus say he has no immediate next move and will likely explore options outside network news, including consulting. “That’s not why he left,” said a source close to Capus, referring to CNN. Rather, he had been contemplating stepping down since Fili-Krushel was put in place over him, and likely would have gone sooner if not for a flurry of new events late last year (Hurricane Sandy, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary and the kidnapping of foreign correspondent Richard Engel in Syria).
And the hurdles of the job have mounted. In early April last year, the news division apologized and fired multiple staffers over a deceptive edit of George Zimmerman’s 911 call on the night he shot Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. The incident gave conservative pundits a new club with which to hammer NBC News, cementing their view that the news division operates with a liberal bias. At the same time, multiple NBC News programs continue to weather challenges. Cash cow Today, which in the past booked more than $600 million a year in advertising revenue for the flagship weekday morning hours alone, has lost its morning news dominance to ABC’s Good Morning America. Sunday public affairs program Meet the Press has been bested by CBS’ Face the Nation. Nightly News with Brian Williams has so far maintained its No. 1 positioning. But Williams’ newsmagazine Rock Center — behind which NBC News put significant resources — has struggled to gain a foothold. Already there has been an executive producer change, and when the show moves from Thursday to Friday on Feb. 8, it’s expected that Williams will no longer anchor Rock Center live.
At the same time, MSNBC has found its brand and ratings success under Griffin, even if that ideologically liberal identity has at times caused tension with NBC News. Sources inside MSNBC say that there has been no interference from Comcast. “They’ve been very supportive,” says one MSNBC staffer. “Their mentality is they just want us to do well.” Which means that’s Griffin would not necessarily be tainted by the liberal bent of MSNBC in the eyes of Comcast executives. But Griffin is also known to be quite happy where he is — and enjoys the loyalty and affection of his staff — and not entirely itching to take on the headaches of NBC News.
Meanwhile, Fili-Krushel is still getting to know the rank-and-file at NBC News and MSNBC. (She has given virtually no interviews and remains an enigma among media reporters who cover the TV news beat.) And she recently moved her office from the 52nd floor executive suite of NBC’s Rockefeller Center headquarters to the third-floor newsroom; which was interpreted as an effort on her part to be more involved. Sources inside NBC News and MSNBC say that elevating female leaders is a priority for her, and many speculate that she’d like to be the one to anoint the first female president of a new division.
Email: Marisa.Guthrie@thr.com; Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie