NBC News Exec on Plan to Reverse Ratings: 'We Want to Win Everywhere' (Analysis)

NBC News Illustration - P 2014
Illustration by: John Ueland

NBC News Illustration - P 2014

Matt Lauer's new "Today" deal comes amid a tighter race with "GMA," Brian Williams' dogfight with Diane Sawyer and tweaks to "Meet the Press."

This story first appeared in the June 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Matt Lauer's new two-plus-year deal to remain on NBC's Today has shored up the lucrative franchise as it continues to chip away at ABC's top-rated Good Morning America. But that bit of good news for NBC News president Deborah Turness came June 12 amid several ongoing ratings and personnel challenges. NBC's other flagship broadcast, Nightly News With Brian Williams, lost six of the previous nine weeks to ABC's World News With Diane Sawyer in viewers ages 25 to 54, the demographic upon which the bulk of TV news ads are sold. World News' recent streak gave the show its first win during a so-called sweeps month in more than six years. And ABC News finished May with across-the-board demo wins, including for Sunday staple This Week with George Stephanopoulos, that show's first sweeps month victory in nearly 21 years. NBC's Meet the Press remains in third place behind CBS' Face the Nation as questions swirl about host David Gregory's future.

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Sources say Brian Williams, 55, has been rankled by the ratings slide. But NBC News senior vp Alexandra Wallace, who has oversight of Nightly News and Meet the Press, cites the shows' growth among younger viewers. NBC News ratings crunchers apparently have narrowed the weakness to viewers at the older end of the 25-to-54 spectrum, specifically 45-to-54.

"Brian, like all of us who work on Nightly News, is less than happy about the one small demo issue we have and [we] are completely focused on correcting it," Wallace tells THR. "We're competitive people, so we want to win everywhere."

Of course, the consensus at NBC News is that the horse race between Williams and Diane Sawyer won't last. But World News executive producer Michael Corn begs to differ. "We're growing," he says. "To us, this is the very beginning of a long-range plan. It's a nice start, but we have a long way to go."

Turness, who joined NBC News in August from the U.K.'s ITV, has emphasized competitive newsmaker bookings and integration across a news division that previously operated more like a set of fiefdoms — not unusual in TV news, where intracompany rivalries are legendary. Her first priority upon taking the job was to reverse the ratings slide at cash cow Today. During recent months, the show has gained back ground from GMA among audiences 25-to-54. In May, only 136,000 demo viewers separated the shows (CBS' This Morning lags behind). But GMA has proved formidable amid multiple anchor changes, including the departures of Josh Elliott (to NBC Sports) and Sam Champion (to the NBCU-owned Weather Channel) and the additions of Amy Robach and Michael Strahan.

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Turness and NBCUniversal News Group chairman Pat Fili-Krushel steadfastly supported Lauer, 56; both made it clear he was their first choice to lead the show with Savannah Guthrie, 42, and any decision about Lauer's future was his. Sources say his new deal came about much the way his previous contract had in 2012: He personally contacted NBCU CEO Steve Burke as well as Fili-Krushel and Turness, told them he'd like to stay, then Lauer's longtime under-the-radar agent Ken Lindner got the ball rolling with the company's business affairs lawyers. A deal was finalized less than a week later. (The value of Lauer's new deal is unclear; his previous contract, signed shortly before Today lost its ratings crown, was worth a reported $25 million annually, making him the highest-paid anchor on TV. With an heir apparent yet to emerge among a cast of supporting male anchors including Willie Geist, 39, and Carson Daly, 40, on Today or elsewhere at NBC News, Lauer certainly had leverage.)

Today is the division's profit center — the first two hours of the weekday program pulled in nearly $500 million in ad revenue in 2013, according to Kantar Media — but Nightly, which brought in nearly $170 million in ad revenue last year, is no less important to the NBC News brand. Asked if the chatter about Nightly's recent ratings defeat impacts morale, Wallace asserts: "If we weren't proud of what we did and felt confident that it was a really solid, strong offering every night, then I'd feel nervous. But the chatter in general, no it doesn't bother us."

On the other hand, sources say the media attacks on Meet the Press, which has endured a reversal of its status from the No. 1 Sunday public affairs program to third place, have upset execs and caused an increase in internal politicking. NBC News political director Chuck Todd, 42, is said to be interested in Gregory's job. And MSNBC's Morning Joe co-hosts Joe Scarborough, 51, and Mika Brzezinski, 47, have been agitating for a role on NBC's Sunday morning schedule (at Sunday Today or MTP). The latter scenario seems to be off the table, at least for now. As one NBC News source puts it: "There is a widening gap between NBC News and MSNBC. Deborah is really pushing to keep the brands apart."

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Turness publicly has supported Gregory, 43, and sources tell THR his contract with the network extends well into 2015. The Sunday shows are not profit drivers for the networks, but they help establish credibility and influence among newsmakers. MTP already has made considerable changes to its format, including an increased digital footprint, shorter segments and a concerted effort to bring in voices from outside the Beltway, a famously insular community. "Obviously we want to win," says Wallace. "We see the numbers, too. But I think the whole daypart, the whole genre, is going through a reinvention right now."

CBS' Bob Schieffer, 77, who anchors the top-rated Sunday public affairs program, would probably disagree. "We slow it down a little bit and examine things in-depth," he told THR recently.  "Face the Nation is going to be 60 years old in November. And we haven't changed very much."