Inside Comcast’s Mess…
In your must read for the week, if not the next month, Vanity Fair’s Bryan Burrough writes about the mess that is NBC News and how Comcast contributed to it…
Officially, in a damage-control mode where almost no one will be interviewed freely and on the record, NBC News declined comment for this article. Unofficially, its loyalists cooperated extensively. While admitting the occasional misstep, they reject the harsh critiques that have trailed in the wake of the Williams scandal, blaming them on a coterie of departed executives, including former NBCUniversal C.E.O. Jeff Zucker and former NBC News chief Steve Capus, who resigned under pressure in 2013. “We know the people saying these things about us, and we know why,” one NBC partisan told me. “Because five years later we are still cleaning up the mess they left behind.”
“Andy Lack’s genius was he gave Jeff and Tim and Neal Shapiro the freedom to run,” says a former NBC News executive who worked closely with everyone involved. “Over the next 15 years NBC News really became the envy of the broadcast world. Today, Nightly, Meet the Press: they were all No. 1 [in their categories]. And they really did help set the agenda for the national discussion.”
After Lack’s departure, to Sony Music Entertainment in 2003, Zucker eventually ascended to take control of NBCUniversal, a position he still held in 2009, when the financial crisis prompted General Electric to streamline its far-flung businesses, a strategy that included selling NBCUniversal to Comcast. NBC News executives had been close to G.E. executives, including C.E.O. Jack Welch, but they soon developed a strong sense that Comcast’s top executives, Brian Roberts and Steve Burke, didn’t value the art of talent management quite so highly.
“I always thought they lacked an appreciation for dealing with talent,” says a former NBC executive who worked with Comcast executives during the transition. “Remember: They come from a cable utility company, where all you do is keep your customers happy and collect the bills at the end of the month. To be honest, you got the sense they couldn’t fathom why NBC worried so much about the talent; you know, ‘Why are these people worrying so much about what Matt Lauer thinks?’ ”
“They didn’t believe in talent management,” says another former executive who worked with Comcast executives. “I’m telling you … they just didn’t believe that mattered.”
The Curry saga convinced Burke that the news division under Steve Capus’s direction was broadly dysfunctional. “The prevailing line from the Comcast people when Steve Capus was in charge was all News needs is a real grown-up in there,” says a top NBC executive at the time. “You know, ‘These people don’t know how to run a business. What they need is organization. Change the structure, business development, better H.R., get some women in there.’ I mean, that’s verbatim. That was the script.” Bell was removed from the equation when Burke gave him the Olympics to supervise, but Burke wanted deeper changes. Insiders believe he found the Curry episode so distasteful that he resolved to distance himself from the details of talent management altogether. “This thing exploded into a soap opera, and let me tell you, it scared the hell out of Steve Burke,” recalls an executive who met with Burke regularly. “And that’s not a phrase you use about a tough guy like Burke. But I saw it.”
The venue where several top NBC executives witnessed Williams’s efforts at corporate politics firsthand was the 51st-floor executive dining room, which Burke had spruced up and encouraged them to use.
“If Brian could’ve eaten there eight days a week he would’ve,” says another onetime NBC executive. “He would hold court at some table, with some poor mid-level schmo who didn’t know what was going on, and he always seemed to be there when Steve Burke would come in. And [with Burke in earshot], he would make a point of taking someone down a notch. It could be Pat or Steve [Capus] or [P.R. chief] Adam [Miller] or someone else, but over time it got to be Steve Capus a lot. Brian took Steve down. I heard those lunches. I know what he said. He got Burke and Pat Fili very riled up about Steve.”
Lastly there’s this…
Williams’s future, NBC insiders insist, remains up in the air. He and Andy Lack are close friends, leading to widespread speculation that Lack will reinstate him once his suspension is complete. But people close to Lack say nothing has yet been decided. Many NBC observers simply can’t imagine a network anchorman ever returning to his former position after being exposed as Williams has. The most Machiavellian scenario, floated by an NBC partisan, is that Jeff Zucker, whose distaste for Comcast executives is well known, has fanned the flames of controversy so that he can eventually snare Williams for CNN—not as a newsman but as the long-sought replacement for Larry King. “That’s the perfect solution,” a source says. “Zucker gets a star, and Brian gets the talk show he always wanted.”
Another NBC partisan points out that Comcast is simply suffering much the same pain General Electric did in the late 1980s in purchasing a news division it knew little about managing, suffering a scandal as a result (the Dateline truck incident for G.E.), and then cleaning house and bringing in Lack to fix it. “Don’t you see?” this person says. “It’s all happening again, just 20 years later.”
Now that you’ve seen the highlights, go read the whole damn thing. It’s worth it…