The predictions are dire and have been for a long time. The beautiful swan that was NBC News is slowly becoming the ugly duckling. There was a time when NBC News was known for stability and strength. Tom Brokaw deftly ruled the evening news as anchor of Nightly News for decades. Nightly News’ ratings dominance against Evening News on CBS and World News on ABC was something to be envied.
Go back for a moment just a decade and remember how it was. At ABC the great Peter Jennings signed off in April for the last time and then died in August of 05, leaving ABC scrambling for a new anchor. Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woddruff would be a new co-anchor team, but the later would be injured covering Iraq and the former would step down (after announcing her pregnancy) and would later seek treatment for alcohol addiction. It was seen as a mess for ABC News and its ship would not be righted until Charles Gibson moved from Good Morning America (a position he had since my childhood) into the anchor desk only to be replaced by his co-anchor Diane Sawyer three years later.
Meanwhile CBS would fair no better. The legendary Dan Rather would be embroiled in a controversy only a year prior to Jenning’s death. It was called “Rathergate” and involved a report Rather filed on 60 Minutes II, claiming George W Bush received special treatment during his time in the military. The papers cited as evidence were bogus and the story was ripped to shreds (a similar issue would plague 60 Minutes I many years later regarding a report filed by Lara Logan regarding false claims surrounding the death of ambassador Chris Stevens in Bengahzi. 60 Minutes would be forced to apologize and Logan would take an extended leave of absence). 60 Minutes II was canceled, Dan Rather was asked to step down in favor of Katie Couric whose tenure at CBS would leave much to be desired. CBS Evening News’ ratings were in the toilet and remained that way until Couric was replaced by 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley in 2011.
During all of this turmoil there was NBC, the darling, the rock, the calm in the sea of controversy. Observers would praise the network for its effortless transition from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams. The ratings dominance of Nightly News was not to be denied. But there was also Meet The Press, for decades dominate in the Sunday ratings with the trusted Tim Russert at the helm. Then there was the Today Show, again, dominate for generations in the morning ratings, now with Matt Lauer and Al Roker at the helm. Even MSNBC was slowly rising with star Keith Olbermann at 8pm and later Rachel Maddow at 9pm.
And so it was for years. But what’s interesting is how the tide would turn and how little cracks here and there would blow wide open and a network news division, the gold standard, untouched for decades, would slowly unravel. Was it the sale of NBC from GE to Universal, then to Comcast? Was it the retiring of Brokaw or the departure of Jeff Zucker? Or was the untimely death of Russert? The firing of Keith Olbermann or Ann Curry or David Gregory? Or all of the above?
And how does it connect to now – the suspension of Brian Williams and the return of Andrew Lack as head of NBC News or the rumored return of Katie Couric? New York magazine doesn’t cover all of this, but it does give an insider’s view of the immediate turmoil with a little history. From a narrative point of view it focuses on the tenure of Deborah Turness, who was hired to head up NBC News:
As top editor of ITV News, a commercial competitor to the BBC, Turness had become the first woman to run a TV-news division in Britain. Under her command, ITV’s news programs dominated the ratings. Producers dubbed her “Mad Dog” for her style of shooting ideas at her staff and constantly driving them to land exclusives. “Deborah is one of the most talented executives I’ve worked with,” says John Hardie, CEO of ITV’s parent company. “She’s the rare combination of someone who is a creative talent, someone with ideas, who is driven, but who also combines that with an inspirational style of leadership.”
Turness’s most important assignment was to fix the second-place Today, but as she began to attack Today’s stalled ratings, a new crisis flared: Meet the Press. In August 2013, her first month on the job, David Gregory’s ratings cratered to the lowest point in 21 years of Meet the Press, putting the show in last place in its time slot.
According to the report, she was blamed for everything:
… the hothouse of Manhattan media was far more intense than anything she had experienced in London. The New York Post mercilessly chronicled her missteps. She was seen as both too harsh in her treatment of Gregory and too weak in taking so long to make the decision. “Very few [executives] would be getting this kind of attention and scrutiny,” says chief foreign-affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell of the magnifying glass Turness has been under since the beginning. “She’s high profile, and she’s the first female news executive.”
The write up is a very interesting read. Check it out here.