NBC News Chief on Ronan Farrow at MSNBC, Matt Lauer's Value and the Future of 'Today' (Q&A)

Justin Steele
Patricia Fili-Krushel

Patricia Fili-Krushel, chairman of NBCUniversal News Group, gives THR a rare in-depth interview over the transformation of the "Today" show -- "They fall fast, and they build back slowly" -- and Lauer's understudy: "I don't think there's an answer yet."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Since NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke pressed Patricia Fili-Krushel into service in July 2012 in a newly created position designed to leverage the company's vast news assets -- and reduce Burke's direct reports -- the executive is back to sleeping with her iPhone on the nightstand.

Little wonder: Her vast portfolio includes NBC News, MSNBC, CNBC, The Weather Channel, NBC News Digital, MSNBC.com and CNBC.com. With 2,300 employees and revenue of more than $2.1 billion in 2012, according to a Pew Research Center estimate, NBCU's news properties reach more than 120 million viewers a month.

In August, Fili-Krushel, 59, tapped former ITV News executive Deborah Turness, an intense Brit who is in Today's control room nearly every morning, to lead NBC News, becoming the first female president in the division's 73-year history. That means Fili-Krushel -- who counts Disney CEO Robert Iger among her "sponsors" during an impressive march up the media ladder that has included top jobs at ABC Entertainment, ABC Daytime and Time Warner -- has only about a half-dozen meetings each day instead of one every half-hour. 

But the married mother of a 22-year-old son and 21-year-old daughter is a born multitasker. The oldest of three siblings raised in Queens by a single mother, Fili-Krushel put herself through St. John's University by working three jobs and graduated in 3½ years: "I couldn't wait to start working!"

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Did you have any trepidation about having Deborah Turness, a Brit, run an American news organization?

I spent hours on the phone with her before I flew her over -- four hours on a Sunday afternoon -- and I asked her, "Watch the Today show, watch [NBC Nightly News], and give me your ideas." So I had a pretty good feeling she was within our wheelhouse. She is not shy about holding people to a higher standard -- she is not a pushover. You can't have this job if you need to be liked. But she has such good people skills. She's not an "I" person; she's a "we" person. And that goes a long way.

Today has a new set and new focus. What's the strategy?

[These shows] fall fast and they build back slowly -- we know that. But over the last seven weeks, which coincide with Deborah getting here, we've seen an uptick in the demo, which is the most important part because that's how we get paid. Deborah [commissioned] a brand audit: What are the brand filters? How do we cover a tough story the Today show way? Lindsay Lohan is news, but how do we do it in a substantive way? Deborah also is very aggressive on not losing any newsmakers -- she is relentless -- and because she's in the trenches with people, it makes them not want to disappoint her.

Before he signed his contract in 2012, Matt Lauer explored doing daytime with Katie Couric and jumping to ABC News. If he did not want to stay on Today, would he still have a place at NBC News?

Absolutely. He is arguably the most talented interviewer across the morning television scene -- there is no one like him. That's a grueling time period -- it's a lot of television. It's a lot of prep, and Matt really preps. We hope he wants to last out at least this contract on the Today show. But there's a place for him not only at NBC News but also at the company.

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Do you want him to stay on Today after his contract is up in 2015?

I'd keep Matt Lauer as long as he wants to stay on the Today show.

Lauer was the obvious heir to his Today predecessor, Bryant Gumbel. Who is his understudy?

That's our focus, and I don't think there's an answer yet. Part of it is expanding the family because that's the easiest way to do it. But that may not be the only way to do it. That's what we're going to spend the next two years on.

NBC News has talked to Anderson Cooper, and Katie Couric might be free soon.

I think she's under a longer-term deal with Disney-ABC. (Laughs.) She actually happens to live in my building -- I know her well. When I was at ABC Daytime and she was at Today, I called her to see if she wanted to do a daytime syndicated show, but she wasn't ready.

Did NBC's entertainment division warn you it was developing a miniseries about Hillary Clinton?

We are all colleagues, so we all know what's going on. After the whole thing broke, [NBC Entertainment chairman] Bob Greenblatt called and said, "I'm sorry." And I was like: "You have to do what works for entertainment. It will cause us some issues in Washington, but I wouldn't expect you to tell me what I can't do."

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What did you think when NBC News' Andrea Mitchell and Chuck Todd criticized the miniseries so publicly?

You hate when you become your own story, but you cannot have a news division that is not independent. You will have no credibility, no trust. And I look at this as a public trust. When I was at Time Warner, [then-chairman and CEO] Dick Parsons got a call from Madonna because of a piece in People magazine. She was like, "You control that magazine." And he said, "No, they are journalists, and they take that role very seriously." I've lived this for years. It's just the way it is.

NBC has been known as highly competitive internally. Has the culture changed?

Steve and I use the shorthand of the culture at Capital Cities [previous owner of ABC]; it's about being an owner, not a renter. So we want leaders to feel like this is their shop. And I would say across Steve's senior leadership team, there is a nice camaraderie. There's competition but there is such a sense that we're in this together. The way Steve operates here is, if you do well, we'll reward you. If you don't do well, then, you'll go work somewhere else.

Is he involved in day-to-day decisions?

I consult him on big things. I'm of the belief that you never want your boss surprised. I have a biweekly meeting with him, and then I probably speak to him three times a week. He calls me; I call him. But nothing big happens without me sharing with him. He watches CNBC most of the time so he'll call me or [CNBC president] Mark Hoffman and say, "Why don't you cover this story?" A couple weeks ago he was like, "Maybe we want to do a primetime special on the debt ceiling crisis?" He definitely has opinions, but he doesn't ever issue edicts. The good thing about Steve is, if you say to him, "OK, that's a great idea," or, "Not such a good idea; we don't think so," he's fine either way, as long as you can defend your position.

So he has not said Today must be the No. 1 morning show again by a certain time?

No. But it is the first, second and third priority because there's so much money tied up in it. He'll say to me, "Keep your eye on that ball."

Do MSNBC's ratings dips during slow political news cycles worry you?

[MSNBC president] Phil Griffin and I have talked a lot about how it's a balancing act: Viewers are coming for MSNBC's personalities, and CNN definitely gets the bump during breaking news. But we have to play in both spaces. When Phil was quoted as saying we don't do breaking news, I know if he could have [taken it back], he would have.

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He also recently hired Ronan Farrow, who doesn't have a lot of TV experience.

In television, you create your own stars. We're not going to throw him right up on his own show -- it will be gradual. But it's no surprise that news skews a little older. Part of it is trying to appeal to a broader swath of people. Ronan can go from Syria to Kim Kardashian and be credible, and he's got a huge social following. He's great for MSNBC, and I think there are places where we can use him on NBC News as well.

Meet the Press hit a 21-year ratings low this past summer. Is it frustrating that the media focuses so heavily on ratings?

The Sunday shows are about shedding light on policy issues and analysis. We all want bragging rights. But we feel good about the show.

Does it concern you that ABC's World News toppled Nightly News in the demo last summer?

Well, it happens so rarely. But when you look at the Nielsen sample, nine households are the CNBC sample. That's the flaw. [The entire Nielsen sample] is 40,000 households. We're all in the same boat. Whether it's on iPads or DVRs, we're just not getting access to those metrics. If news consumption wasn't going up, I'd be worried.  

Digital news consumption is growing, but linear TV is what keeps the lights on. At what point does digital revenue become meaningful?

I think we're a little further out on that. It's about protecting your core while growing this other area. They're not mutually exclusive. I'm focused on continuing to have a pipeline of news consumers. The consumers of traditional television news, they're dying off. There isn't a big pipeline coming in. We need to appeal to 18- to 45-year-olds with a different kind of product. My daughter watches Jon Stewart every day. My son happens to like Bill Maher. Those are different kinds of news products. It can be snarky. It has attitude. We want our brands to play in the 360 space, but probably not as far as that. Instead, Brian Williams can slow jam the news on Jimmy Fallon.

When Burke offered you this job, did you hesitate?

He had like 17 direct reports. We were talking about trying to collapse things to be more manageable. We are favorably advantaged because we have broadcasting and two cable networks to leverage the infrastructural costs, which is why we're more profitable than the other news divisions. I had been saying to Steve, "I really think you need to form a news group." And he said to me, "You're right." I told him I would tee up some names for him to talk to, and he said, "Well, I think I know who I want to run it." I was like: "Oh, OK. That makes my job easy. Who?" And he says, "You." I literally had no clue.