Michael Wolff on NBC News' Ratings Woes: Too Many Execs, No Real Power

Rebuild_by_Stripping_Down_Illo - H 2014
Illustration by: John Ueland

Rebuild_by_Stripping_Down_Illo - H 2014

Patricia Fili-Krushel, Deborah Turness and the recently ousted Jamie Horowitz all have impressive-sounding titles, but it would be difficult in anything but the most bureaucratic speak to say what they actually do, writes Wolff

This story first appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Television news producers often amass great power and rise to high corporate rank. Roone Arledge at ABC and Roger Ailes at Fox News remade TV news and became pivotal forces within their companies. Jeff Zucker rose from producing NBC's Today show to running all of NBCUniversal and now CNN Worldwide. Ben Sherwood, a former head of ABC's news division, is in charge of most of the Disney/ABC TV empire.

Television news can be a powerful career platform because news divisions and big news shows, with their need for instant decisions, often operate with greater independence and a greater public profile than other parts of media organizations. If news shows work, the person in charge gets the credit — or, if they don't work, the blame.

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But at NBC, this natural state of affairs has been disrupted. Rather than a news producer rising up, a corporate person has settled over, creating a marked diffusion of responsibility — suddenly evident in the embarrassing, nearly overnight hiring and firing of Jamie Horowitz at the Today show.

Patricia Fili-Krushel, whose primary attribute often is given as "trusted lieutenant" to NBCUniversal CEO (and senior Comcast executive) Steve Burke — in her lieutenant's job she oversaw functions including human resources, operations and technical services, and real estate — now is the head of NBC News. Well, Deborah Turness has that title, and Fili-Krushel has the uber-title of NBCUniversal News Group chairman. NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC report to Fili-Krushel, making her arguably the most powerful person in television news — and everyone else in news at NBC thereby less powerful.

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While each part of the NBCUniversal News Group faces unique challenges, Today — which falls under NBC News and which generates about $200 million in annual profits, according to The New York Times — presents one of the most critical issues. After lots of personnel turmoil, Horowitz, a joint Turness/Fili-Krushel hire, was brought in this fall from ESPN to run things at the show. But Horowitz was not hired as executive producer, who actually runs the show, but as GM, with oversight and "branding" responsibilities. When Zucker was the executive producer on Today, he reported to news division head Andy Lack and, as everybody knew, often went directly to CEO Bob Wright (or, as also commonly understood, Zucker reported to himself). More recently at Today, executive producer Don Nash found himself reporting to Horowitz, who was reporting to Turness, who was reporting to Fili-Krushel, who was reporting to Burke.

It would be difficult in anything but the most bureaucratic speak to say what anyone except Nash and Burke actually does here. Suffice to say Fili-Krushel somehow channels Burke and keeps him happy, Turness channels Fili-Krushel and keeps her happy, and Horowitz channels Turness and keeps her happy. At least he was supposed to. But Horowitz failed so spectacularly at holding his place in the happiness chain that he was fired 10 weeks after getting the job and even before he officially started (under terms of his ESPN contract, he couldn't start at NBC until Dec. 1).

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Beyond way too many cooks being in the kitchen, there are perhaps harder-to-solve problems at NBC News. News consumption, even more than other parts of television, has been transformed by digital competition. Cable news viewing is down, and left-leaning MSNBC is down the most. Once-dominant Today is losing the morning ratings race to ABC's revived and well-managed Good Morning America.

Likely too many cooks is a response to such intractable problems — you deal with a serious problem by hiring someone to deal with the person who is supposed to fix the problem — as well as, in fact, one of the problems. Television tends toward bureaucracies and yes men, but Comcast compounds this tendency. It is part of the Comcast style, as an acquirer (it assumed control of NBCUniversal in 2011), to put its people in above the native NBC people. Burke, who splits time between New York and Philadelphia, where he reports to Comcast chief Brian Roberts, speaks to his people, whom he understands (and who understand him), who in turn speak to the NBC people. In fact, Burke's people have tended to hire people to gain even more distance from NBC — which is, after all, the problem. Turness, a Brit who had no previous experience working in the U.S., was hired by Fili-Krushel from ITV as a "change agent" at the news division. And, indeed, Horowitz, who had no previous experience working on a women-focused show (most of the Today audience is female) was hired as a "change agent" at Today. That's a lot of change.

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The Burke/Fili-Krushel/Turness idea seems to have been to put in Horowitz as a disrupter, a job at which by all accounts he succeeded brilliantly — managing uniquely to infuriate everyone at the same time, especially the network's biggest news star, Matt Lauer, and fellow Today anchors Savannah Guthrie, Natalie Morales and Al Roker.

A lesson here — an old one, but probably confusing for Comcast, fundamentally a pipes-and-infrastructure company — is that many aspects of television don't yield well to conventional management. It isn't a rational process. A show like Today, with its long history, temperamental egos, tricky news and pop-culture programming mix and inbred family ethos, is a fragile ecosystem, a Rube Goldberg contraption. The real management challenge is to hold it together.

One of the most valuable management contributions at Today probably was made by Zucker when, upon Katie Couric's departure for CBS in 2006 and the breakup of her long and successful on-air partnership with Lauer, he replaced her with Meredith Vieira, giving the show another five years of dominance. Its fall since then arguably has been all about casting confusion, including the disastrous elevation and eventual ouster of Ann Curry.

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Perhaps casting is the problem Comcast meant to solve by bringing in a branding manager like Horowitz — "branding" being a way to make Lauer more charming than he now seems and less powerful than he is at the network. But branding, which is corporate speak, is not the same as casting or dealing with stars, which is show business and chemistry.

Those are hands-on skills.

Fili-Krushel might be the head of NBC News, but she does not represent the news division; she represents Burke, an important distinction. Roger Ailes might report to Rupert Murdoch, but only as the man responsible for Fox News. Fili-Krushel is insulated, in org-chart fashion, from almost all responsibility for the news division. There is no point of blame she necessarily would have to assume — there always is someone else more directly responsible.

In this sense, the most powerful person in television news really has no power. Burke continues to hold the cards — or, rather, Fili-Krushel holds his cards.

The management alternative is to appoint someone to run the NBC News assets who truly would be the most important figure in television news, who could unify (and make sense of) one of the largest TV news organizations and live or die by this mission. The problem, of course, is that such a person might become independently powerful in ways one might not be able to predict — which in traditional top-down, Comcast-style management terms is an outcome you want to avoid as much as you want the Today show to be on top again.

Michael Wolff frequently writes about the media business and is the author of the biography The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch.