Brian Steinberg Senior TV Editor
NBCUniversal is banking that the homecoming of one of its best-known former executives will help reverse its fortunes in the tricky area of TV news.
The Comcast-owned media conglomerate confirmed Friday that Andrew Lack, a one time president and chief operating officer of NBC, would return in April to oversee NBC News and MSNBC – two media properties struggling to maintain their audiences in the face of various challenges. CNBCwill remain under the aegis of president Mark Hoffman, who will report to NBCU CEO Steve Burke, according to a memo Burke sent to staffers Friday.
Lack arrives in the wake of a discomfiting February revelation from “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams that he falsified his account of a 2003 reporting excursion to Iraq, which resulted in a six month suspension. Lack replaces Pat Fili-Krushel, a veteran TV-industry executive who has worked in the senior ranks at Walt Disney and Time Warner. Fili-Krushel will continue to work on the executive team of NBCU CEO Steve Burke and report directly to him, Burke said in a memo to staff Friday. NBC News president and MSNBC president Phil Griffin will both report to Lack.
Lack’s challenges are manifold: He must restore credibility to NBC News, an organization whose reputation has been tarnished by reporting missteps in recent months as well as Williams’ admission, and new momentum to MSNBC, which has lost significant viewership. MSNBC is in the midst of restocking its talent pool and reorganizing its daytime lineup.
Other issues are at play at NBC News.
The unit’s flagship morning program, “Today,” fell second to ABC’s “Good Morning America” in 2012, spurred in part by the network’s flubbed efforts to move co-host Ann Curry out and spark new attention by pairing Savannah Guthrie with Matt Lauer. “Meet the Press,” the Sunday public-affairs program, has suffered an identity crisis of sorts since longtime host Tim Russert passed away unexpectedly in 2008. David Gregory took over the show, but NBC News executives did not like the direction of the program during his tenure.
The one bright spot has been “NBC Nightly News,” but Williams’ recent troubles have raised questions about the direction of that newscast. Williams has been suspended for six months, and NBC News has put in place an investigation into his behavior and the veracity of some of his reporting is completed. Under Lester Holt, the newscast has maintained its ratings lead, but ABC’s “World News” recently trumped it in capturing more of the viewers advertisers covet, adults 25-54.
In naming Lack to the role, NBCUniversal has tapped someone who recalls when the company’s news operations firmly led the rest of the TV universe. Under his supervision, “Today,” “NBC Nightly News” and “Meet the Press” all inhabited the No. 1 spot. And Lack has experience turning the division around. When he was named president of NBC News in 1993, it was after the division had suffered a black eye in the wake of a report on “Dateline” in which producers admitted to rigging a pickup truck to catch fire as part of a report on General Motors pickup trucks. GM in turn sued NBC for defamation.
Since leaving NBC in 2003, he has broadened his executive experience. He was chief executive and chairman of Sony Music Entertainment; spent six years at the helm of Bloomberg Media Group; and, most recently, had just begun a tenure as chief executive of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
Lack has ties to some of NBC’s best-known journalists, including Katie Couric, and had a role in positioning Brian Williams for the “Nightly News” anchor chair. Though some speculation has erupted in recent days that Lack’s rise may augur a return for Williams, that idea is widely believed not to dovetail with the reality of the situation. Insiders feel a reversal of Williams’ fortunes under Lack is in no way a fait accompli.