Can Andy Lack Save NBC News—With Brian Williams and Katie Couric?

NBC News has a new chief, and the rumor mill has it he’s out to revive the careers of Brian Williams and Katie Couric.

03.06.15 11:41 PM ET

Along with a great many people at the troubled NBC Universal News Group and its corporate parent, Comcast, Andy Lack is hoping that the second time’s a charm.

The 67-year-old Lack—who in yet another shakeup at 30 Rock will take over in April as chairman of NBC News and MSNBC—presided over the Peacock Network’s news division during a successful run back in the last century and then departed 13 years ago for greener pastures.

On Friday, Lack—who this week quit his latest job, overseeing the federally-funded Broadcasting Board of Governors, after a mere two months—was seen soaring through the corridors of 30 Rock, greeting old friends and colleagues, meeting new ones, and reassuring everyone that help is coming. 

“I think this is a very positive move, and viewed as positive by most people,” Sir Howard Stringer, the former chairman and chief executive of the Sony Corp., told The Daily Beast from his home in Britain.

Lack worked for Stringer both at CBS News, where the latter held a variety of production and executive positions before taking the reins of the entire network, and at Sony, where Lack was in charge of Sony Music.

“He is clearly in a position to be revivifying NBC News,” Stringer said. “He’s done the job before, and he did it very well. He transformed NBC News into a real player, and understands production, and understands pretty much everything about that kind of programming...He’s a very good producer and has a very good sense of balance, and is very dynamic. It’s a shrewd move by Comcast.”

Yet, among some at NBC, Lack’s second coming is prompting a degree of skepticism. “It isn’t very often that the sequel is as good as the original,” said an NBC News insider, adding that Lack enjoyed success at a time when the digital age was on the horizon, the Internet was barely a factor, and social media didn’t even exist. “It’s a completely different world today than when Andy Lack was here.”

By most accounts a natural at the delicate task of handling big-egoed network talent—Lack is still close to Matt Lauer, Katie Couric and, perhaps significantly, Brian Williams—he has a pretty big ego himself; he possesses an outsized personality and, by some accounts, a conspicuous fondness for status and perks.

“I am America’s news leader,” he famously announced to the New York Times in 1997—an immodest declaration that, nearly two decades later, continues to be cited by his detractors.

Thus Lack represents a noteworthy departure from the model Comcast executive who, like NBC Universal Chairman and CEO Stephen Burke—Lack’s new boss—shuns publicity, rules quietly behind the scenes, and generally avoids even the possibility of being colorful.

Burke, who is also an executive vice president of Comcast, reached out to Lack after months of turmoil roiling under his nose, notably ratings declines at MSNBC and continued angst at the second-place Today show, embarrassing publicity concerning a series of personnel missteps, and the six-month suspension without pay of NBC News’ lead anchor, Williams, for (among other journalistic sins) telling a tall tale about a helicopter ride during the U.S. invasion of Iraq on the Jan. 30 edition of “NBC Nightly News.”

“Above all else, Andy is a great producer, and I think the first thing you’ll see is a return to an emphasis on production, which might mean some changes on some shows’ casts that are not quite clicking,” said a television news executive who formerly worked under Lack.

A major priority, this executive said, will be fixing the first two hours of the “Today” show, which has been struggling for the past two years to regain ratings leadership—and recapture tens of millions of dollars in lost advertising revenue—from ABC’s top-rated “Good Morning America.”

Another trouble spot is MSNBC, the self-described “progressive” cable outlet (in contrast to Fox News’s wildly successful conservative bent), which has experienced a ratings plunge in recent months.

Lack, who has a long professional relationship with MSNBC President Phil Griffin, a respected producer when Lack ran the news division, was present at the creation of the cable network in 1996; indeed he helped invent it.

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“I’m sure Phil was already worried before Andy, but he’s not the real problem,” said the executive. “The real problem is that the premise of the network is tied to a president [Obama] and a political cycle that is not favorable to ratings right now. Phil Griffin knows what he’s doing; he’s a very smart guy. So I don’t think Andy’s arrival automatically spells doom for him.”

What’s more, Lack must figure out how the top-rated “Nightly News” can recover from the PR damage of the Brian Williams debacle; although the program continues to hold its audience with interim and possibly permanent anchor Lester Holt, this executive said that a Williams comeback is not outside the realm of possibility.

“Andy is a fresh set of eyes, and somebody who’s respected by the rank and file, and he could come in and say Brian has served his penance and is ready to come back,” the executive said, noting that such a scenario could happen assuming that no further serious lapses are discovered by NBC News’s continuing internal investigation of Williams’s reporting over the years. “That might have been impossible with the current cast of characters, who are committed to punishing him.”

Embattled British import Deborah Turness, who has sought Lack’s advice and socialized with him over the past year in Bronxville, N.Y., the posh Westchester County suburb where both live, is staying on as president of NBC News.

But Turness’s soon-to-be ex-boss, NBC Universal News Group Chairman Pat Fili-Krushel, is being sidelined by Lack’s arrival—or, as NBC Universal Chairman and CEO Stephen Burke tactfully put it in a memo on Friday, “As she approaches three years in the role, I have asked Pat to return to my team and work directly with me again as she did before she took on her news responsibilities.”

Lack—who earned his television stripes as a veteran producer at CBS News and briefly served as president and chief operating officer of NBC before leaving in 2002 to join his former CBS boss, Howard Stringer, at the Sony Corp.—will have no authority over CNBC, the ratings-challenged financial channel.

CNBC President Mark Hoffman--who worked under Lack in the 1990s, competed against him during the five years that Lack ran the Bloomberg Media Group, and is said to be less than bosom buddies with him—will report to Burke. 

Meanwhile, a report by CNN media correspondent Brian Stelter suggested that Lack’s return engagement could be good news for Couric, the star of the Today show during its period of ratings dominance.

She left NBC in 2005 to anchor the CBS Evening News and then moved to ABC and tried her hand at syndicated daytime television before joining Yahoo News last year; she reportedly has spoken to Lack in recent days, possibly about a role at NBC. Couric and her representative didn’t respond to emails from The Daily Beast.

Here is Stephen Burke’s memo announcing Lack’s arrival:

“I want to let you know about some changes we are making within the NBCUniversal News Group. Andy Lack is returning to the company as Chairman, NBC News and MSNBC. Andy will join our Executive Committee and report directly to me. He will begin in April.

“Pat Fili-Krushel, who has been one of my most trusted advisors since she joined NBCUniversal four years ago, will move into a new corporate role on my executive team.

“Andy is an accomplished journalist who began his award-winning news career in 1976 at CBS and rose through the newsroom ranks until he joined NBC News as President in 1993. 

While at NBC, he presided over the News division’s unprecedented rise to number one, led by “Today,” “Nightly News,” “Dateline” and “Meet the Press.” 

“In 2001 Andy was promoted to President and COO of NBC, where he was responsible for news, entertainment, TV stations, MSNBC and CNBC.

“Andy’s executive leadership also includes six years as CEO and Chairman of the Bloomberg Media Group, before leaving in September of 2014 to assume his most recent position as CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Prior to that, he was CEO and Chairman of Sony Music Entertainment.

“Andy’s experience and familiarity with our company and specifically the news division will be critical to our growth and future success. 

“Deborah Turness, President of NBC News and Phil Griffin, President of MSNBC will both report to Andy. 

“Mark Hoffman, President of CNBC, and Andy will work closely to ensure that where appropriate CNBC will leverage the strength of the News Group portfolio. Mark will continue on the Executive Committee and report to me. All of Pat’s other direct reports will report to Andy.

“When we created the News Group in 2011, I asked Pat to run it in order to maximize the combined strength of our portfolio as audiences fundamentally change the way they consume news.

“In that time Pat has helped position the organization for future growth by integrating television and digital, creating innovative partnerships, and modernizing the tools and technology we use to gather and deliver news.

“As she approaches three years in the role, I have asked Pat to return to my team and work directly with me again as she did before she took on her news responsibilities. I am grateful to Pat for her work and accomplishments at the NBCUniversal News Group and for helping to identify Andy as her successor.

“I look forward to having her back on the 51st floor.

“Please join me in welcoming Andy back to our company and in thanking Pat.”