Unintended Consequences…Or, How To Deplete a Talent Bench in Five Easy Steps…
Today’s Weekend Today changes technically fall outside of my cable news domain. That said, there is tangential potential cable news impact here. Plus there are some stories that I just can’t sit on my hands for and this would be one of them because it ties together a bunch of loose ends that have been bouncing around the old noggin for a while. Thus expect this piece to go all over the place…
In case you missed it, the news…which isn’t news actually…is NBC announced the long ago leaked out news that Erica Hill would be joining Weekend Today. What was news, however, was the part about Jenna Wolfe getting demoted. Though NBC tried very hard to frame Wolfe’s new duties as of the “not a demotion” variety, she just went from anchoring a Sunday show to not anchoring any show and no amount of perfume is going to make that turd smell sweet.
On the whole NBC did something it needed to do years ago…it unified Weekend Today behind a single anchor team. No more of this Saturday/Sunday splitting the team that’s been going on since Campbell Brown left NBC for CNN. Brown left CNN over a year ago…Yeah…it’s been that long. Anyway, Weekend Today finally has the unified front it should have had four years ago. But it’s coming with a potentially heavier price tag than one would have expected.
NBC has frequently played up how deep and resilient its bench is. Well by going out and getting an outsider tossed on CBS’ scrapheap, demoting one of its own, and nearly slamming the ceiling shut on a third person I’ll be discussing in a moment, NBC, by its actions, has created the appearance of casting a big “no confidence” vote in that bench. If there is that much of a bench anymore.
Norah O’Donnell bolted to CBS after seeing her career path dry up. Amy Robach bolted to ABC soon after Savannah Guthrie was named Todsy Show anchor leaving people like me to wonder if there was a connection (it would have had the indirect result of blocking Robach’s career path at NBC where she only anchored regularly one day a week).
Now consider Tamron Hall. A few years ago the word on the street was Hall was intent on leaving MSNBC/NBC for ABC where there was talk of pairing her with Ashleigh Banfield who was freelancing with the network at that time. NBC didn’t want to lose Hall and worked its butt off to get her to stay. It raised her profile. She appeared more frequently on the Today Show. The kibitzers were saying that if either Robach or Wolfe left Weekend Today, Hall was a near certain lock to get the gig. Well Hall not only didn’t get the gig, an outsider with little track record of success who got a very public no confidence vote from her previous employer after less than a year on that network’s newly rebooted morning show.
Look, I like Erica Hill. I was watching her back when she was on TechTV with Michaela Pereira and most of you didn’t even know her name. But, that said, I have been scratching my head for years as I watched her career continue to rise as she jumped from higher profile gig to even higher profile gig, while at the same time not having the kind of resume or background that one would normally associate such moves…and having a track record of not moving the ratings dial any and yet still continuing to rise up. It’s like the laws of network ratings physics didn’t apply for her.
The only career case study more perplexing than Hill’s in recent years has been Savannah Guthrie’s. Like Hill, I have nothing against Guthrie. I like her. I just am unable to comprehend why her career path has gone the way it has based on her resume and the amount of ratings success she (hasn’t) had along the way. From what I hear’ the Today Show has won only two weeks since the Olympics and yet Guthrie is anchoring three hours which even highly paid Matt Lauer doesn’t do (this practice will apparently end when Willie Geist joins Today at 9am soon). Guthrie is regularly filling in for Brian Williams on Nightly. She even makes appearances on Meet The Press and MSNBC. This level of exposure for someone that junior is unprecedented in NBC’s history; especially if you factor in the lack of success Today has had in re-seizing the #1 spot from ABC’s GMA that has occurred since she arrived. It’s quite stunning actually. I wouldn’t go so far as to say NBC is force feeding Guthrie down its viewers’ throats but one could be excused for entertaining thoughts on the subject given how she shows up everywhere on that channel.
It’s almost like NBC is doing the exact opposite of what it used to do with talent. For decades NBC positioned talent on high flying Today as the tie in to get viewers to watch other NBC properties where that talent normally worked. Now it seems like NBC is positioning Guthrie all over NBC’s air in the hopes of luring viewers back to Today where she normally works. If this is NBC’s strategy, the jury is still out as to whether it will work.
But I see I’ve digressed. I told you this piece would wander. Back to Hill and Hall…
With Hill now firmly entrenched at Weekend Today and Willie Geist moving over to the 9am hour of Today, Hall’s future career aspirations at NBC have seemingly dwindled down to perpetual fill-in duty at NBC…something she’s been doing less and less of than she was a year ago. That she got passed over for Weekend Today in favor of outsider Hill, whose career was severely damaged by CBS’ lightning quick dropping of her from the CBS This Morning after doing so much to push her as a rising star at the network, has to sting at least a little. I don’t know Hall’s contract situation, but one has to wonder if she will look at the new pecking order at NBC and decide her career path options are now too restricted and, if NBC doesn’t step up and create an opening for her, will she come to the conclusion that after NBC wooed her hard to stay last time that she’s now better off joining O’Donnell and Robach as former NBC employees who decided their futures lay elsewhere? Or, if NBC does nothing to futher her career opportunities, does Hall want to stay essentially as an MSNBC employee for years to come despite the direction that network is going and the reputation as a newsless politically left leaning POV analysis network which it is now openly coveting? Time will tell on that. If Hall does end up bolting, NBC’s much-vaunted-for-years power bench will have been all but depleted because O’Donnell, Robach, Guthrie, Geist, and Hall essentially were that bench.
Just to be clear: I am not criticizing either Hill or Guthrie. I like them both. This article was about how networks operate and how they use and move talent, not an article about the talent themselves. If a network offers you an opportunity for higher exposure and a bigger future, you’re not going to turn it down. You’re going to jump at it and hope things work out as they were pitched to you. Sometimes things blow up spectacularly as they did for Hill just as it did for Ashleigh Banfield at NBC, Campbell Brown when she jumped to CNN, or (twice) for Alexis Glick; first at NBC and then at FBN. That is something almost entirely out of a talent’s control. This business is brutal. One moment your riding high at a network, the next you inexplicably find yourself stuck in the network’s Los Angeles bureau. Regimes change. Loyalties change. Pecking orders change. There is no security. And I lay blame for that far more on the networks and their fickle “we like you…uh…now we don’t” attitudes than I ever would on the talent. The networks build you up one moment, they tear you down the next. You need a cast iron stomach to work in this industry.