When Will a Woman Run a TV News Division?
That glass ceiling could break soon, writes broadcast news analyst Andrew Tyndall — but with a deflating asterisk.
Last year — appropriately for a year in which the #MeToo movement was launched — marked a significant milestone on the road to gender equity in television news. In 2017, for the first time, nightly news assignment desks gave equal time to their leading male and female correspondents. Of the top 10 reporters ranked by airtime on the three broadcast networks’ weekday nightly newscasts, five were men and five were women. ABC World News Tonight gave most prominence to Jonathan Karl, Mary Bruce and Cecilia Vega. CBS Evening News relied most on Nancy Cordes and Jeff Pegues. On NBC Nightly News, Hallie Jackson and Kristen Welker shared top billing with Miguel Almaguer, Tom Costello and Gabe Gutierrez.
In the mornings, when Matt Lauer was defenestrated from the Rockefeller Plaza window of NBC’s Today, he was replaced by colleague Hoda Kotb. For the first time, Today’s anchor team was all-female. When Charlie Rose was kicked off CBS This Morning under a similar sexual harassment cloud, he was replaced by John Dickerson from the same network’s Face the Nation. But Dickerson’s Sunday chair is now occupied by a woman, Margaret Brennan.
So, clearly, TV news has no problem presenting a face of gender equality to its audience. Yet, behind the scenes, at the highest executive levels, no such balance exists. The president of the news division at each of the three broadcast networks is a man. The president of CNN is a man. Fox News Channel has a woman, Suzanne Scott, as its president of programming; but its chief executive is the archetype of the patriarch — Rupert Murdoch himself.
Since it takes decades to climb the ladder to the top spot in a news division, the gender of those who sit in the presidents’ chairs now must be a reflection of the biases of the managers who were doing the hiring 30 or 40 years ago. Sure enough, NBC’s Andy Lack cut his teeth at the entry level of CBS back in the mid-’70s, when network television news was in its pomp.
The only exception to the males-only rule for the news presidents’ club has been Pat Fili-Krushel. She oversaw NBC News after the network was purchased by Comcast seven years ago. Unlike the other chiefs, Fili-Krushel didn’t work her way up the producer ranks but was parachuted in by Comcast for her executive experience. After three years, Lack replaced her and the bottom-up route was restored.
CNN’s Jeff Zucker started at NBC in the mid-’80s; ABC’s James Goldston at BBC in the mid-’90s; and CBS’ David Rhodes was at the foundation of FNC at the same time. Given their generation — younger than Lack’s — it is a surprise that none of their female peers has risen to the same top level. Nevertheless, a trend toward gender equality in entry-level hiring behind the camera is at last bearing fruit. CBS News boasts more women than men at the level of senior producer and higher. At NBC’s Today, where Zucker cut his teeth, 19 of 32 senior producers are women.
Several senior executives who started their careers at the same time as Zucker, or more recently, would now seem to be primed for a division presidency. In the 1980s, Amy Entelis and Barbara Fedida were both new hires at ABC News, Roone Arledge’s powerhouse. Meanwhile, Ingrid Ciprian-Matthews started at the still-fledgling CNN. Now, Entelis — whom Arledge assigned to run gender affirmative action outreach — is a top exec at CNN, where she has forged the network’s thriving original series and film business. Fedida is back at ABC, where she is among those in line to replace Goldston’s No. 2, Tom Cibrowksi, whose last day is April13. Ciprian-Matthews has been at CBS for 25 years and is among Rhodes’ chief lieutenants; he promoted her to executive vp of news last February. And from the following generation comes Janelle Rodriguez, who started at CNN after the millennium and has risen quickly since arriving at NBC News in 2015. She is waiting for Lack to leave, as she wields authority over NBC News, both broadcast and cable.
The rose-colored view of these potential glass-ceiling breakers would be that more enlightened hiring practices in the ’80s and ’90s are finally filtering through to all levels of the news divisions’ hierarchies. A more depressing, more jaundiced view would be that men always monopolize the most high-flying, most prestigious, most glamorous positions. In the ’70s, those were found in network TV. By the ’90s, the media buzz had shifted to the digital world and Silicon Valley. Think of the sexiest, buzziest journalistic outlets of recent decades: Politico and Axios, FiveThirtyEight and Vox, BuzzFeed and Vice, Gawker and TMZ. All male — though Vice newly has Nancy Dubuc at its helm.
When Katie Couric in 2005 became the first woman to anchor a nightly network newscast without a male co-host, she was hailed as the breaker of a glass ceiling. Yet what her arrival actually signified was the diminishment of the power of that chair. Couric was the fulcrum that marked the switch from Rather, Brokaw and Jennings to Glor, Holt and Muir — from the center of an entire news division to the center of an audience-challenged nightly broadcast.
So Fedida, Entelis, Ciprian-Matthews, Rodriguez, if they complete the Couric-like climb to the top, may find only that their ascension heralds that lofty post’s diminishment.
This story first appeared in the April 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.