There were a lot of lessons from very smart people that I tucked away and carried with me throughout my career as a TV news producer, but it was the first one that might have proven to be the most important. I was young and it was my first shot at producing, on the biggest show both in the shop and in the market, when a story broke that I needed my anchors to report immediately. I gave it to one of them, getting in his ear and telling him that I needed him to read it at the top of next block, since we were in a commercial. He balked, saying he didn't think it was worth cutting into the show for -- even though the edict had come directly from my executive producer. I quickly moved to my other anchor and told her to take it and her response was to stand in solidarity with her fellow on-air talent. She just shook her head no. Confused and frustrated, with the clock ticking down, I reminded them that I was new and didn't feel good about looking like someone who couldn't be a strong producer when he needed to be. Still -- nothing.
Finally, I gave up and pulled the rip cord. I called downstairs and growled to my E.P. that neither of my anchors was willing to read the story we told them to. I expected to have my ass chewed out, but her response was nothing short of glorious. "Fine -- I don't want to see them on TV for the next two blocks," she said. "We can wipe out of the break directly into video and then to weather and we can hear their voices, but they will get no face-time at all for the next 15 minutes." I relayed the orders to my director. And for the next 15 minutes it was all shit-eating grins in the control room. When I got downstairs, My E.P. took me aside and said, with absolute authority, "Sometimes you have to remind the children who's in charge." Like I said -- carried that through my entire career.
Maybe I was lucky. I started my TV news journey at a place where the way the news was delivered was considered more important than who was delivering it. It's not that the faces you saw on your TV weren't a vital part of the product, it's just that their presence and influence were never allowed to tower over everything else, intimidating those who spent an average of 11-hours-a-day powering the machine that drove the newscasts. It was a very egalitarian, pirate ship way of doing news -- and it worked. At the time this was a revolutionary concept within the industry, while for me it was simply all I knew. This is probably why I was so confused when I set out into the world and began working in shops where format-over-talent was still an alien concept. The notion of a 22-year-old producer who makes far less than a tenth of what his anchor makes being able to shut that anchor down completely as an object lesson was unthinkable. Big market main anchors in particular were often larger-than-life figures, trusted completely by the viewers -- or so the promotions department was instructed to tell people -- but behind the scenes just as often pompous asses whose demands required either tending-to or circumnavigating at all times.
None of this is to say that there weren't smart, professional and even easy-going anchors out there willing to set aside whatever egos they may have had for the good of the product -- and that there don't continue to be -- only that a newsroom works best when the producers and managers build the newscasts and the talent isn't allowed to run rampant over them. Talent shouldn't have right-of-refusal or a final say in what the news product looks like. True, their faces are generally what sells the tickets, but treating them with absolute, god-like deference is a recipe for disaster -- especially these days when it's easier than ever to be far removed from the actual process of broadcast journalism and still be a news anchor. Talent shouldn't run the show. And if you need proof of what happens when it's allowed to, look no further than NBC.
Last weekend, New York magazine published a extended report by Gabriel Sherman that delved into the seemingly endless series of internal and P.R. catastrophes that have plagued NBC News throughout the last couple of years, culminating in the suspension of Brian Williams and the desperate decision to bring former NBC Newsgroup President Andy Lack back to try to right the ship. Sherman's covered quite a few of these crises as they initially developed but here he puts them all together not only connects them but digs deep deeply into what the hell was going on inside NBC News that led to such chaos. There are a whole litany of interesting takeaways from the piece: that Brian Williams lobbied NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke to let him take over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno and even approached Les Moonves at CBS about becoming the next host of The Late Show after Letterman announced he was stepping aside; that NBC had to scramble to control the damage after Williams went rogue and, before running his response by anyone, admitted to Stars & Stripes that he had made a mistake in saying he was on a chopper that was shot down in Iraq; that Williams has felt constantly judged and criticized by his predecessor, Tom Brokaw, saying at one point to Chuck Todd, who recently took over Meet the Press, "At least your ghost is dead. Mine is still walking the building."; that NBC News President Deborah Turness's management style not only rubbed everyone wrong from the start but her and the network's attempt to rebuild the Today show was plagued by issues, from her hiring and firing of ESPN firebrand executive Jamie Horowitz to NBC Newsgroup President Pat Fili-Krushel's plan to bring in three new female producers, which Matt Lauer nixed, saying, "This is like Lilith Fair."
Keep in mind that not only has Brian Williams been Nightly News's main anchor for the past ten years, in keeping with recent tradition he's also acted as the show's managing editor. What this means is, as Sherman's piece describes, he has the final say as to what goes on the air and what doesn't. In addition to shooting down a lot of quality stories, Williams reportedly refused to record more promos to help him and Nightly stave off an increasing threat by ABC World News Tonight. Meanwhile, on Today you had Pat Fili-Krushel -- remember, the head of the entire NBC Newsgroup -- giving Lauer the authority to basically dictate the direction of the show and dismiss any reforms he didn't agree with. Sherman says that Lauer considered GMA, the direct competition that had knocked Today off its pedestal, "tabloid garbage" and said the Today brand should be about “Substance, Connection, Uplift." (Some of the Today staff rearranged the initials to create "SUC," because there's nowhere TV news people are more creative than in their wise-ass cynicism.) If you're starting to see a pattern developing here among all these issues, you should. It should be loud and clear. In case you need any help, Sherman spells it out for you. "Taken together, the upheavals portray a news division that has allowed talent to take over," he writes. "'There’s no adult supervision,' ... 'If you don’t manage, it turns into a bad version of Ron Burgundy.'"
NBC News's upper-management has not only ceded its authority to the network's anchors and hosts, it's allowed those anchors and hosts to practically run the network into the ground. Somewhere along the line NBC News decided that because they pay these people millions and millions of dollars that they're the most essential cog in the wheel that makes the product move forward, that not only should they be the face of the news but the brain as well. You can see what that philosophy has wrought.
Talent is hugely important; they wouldn't make the kind of money they do if they weren't. But that kind of wealth and celebrity, combined with the prestige of achieving it through doing the news, can create a massive, titanium-plated sense of self-importance. If you play yes-man to an ego that believes that it's doing the invaluable work of enlightening and educating the public and therefore has the trust of that public, you're going to eventually regret it. That person may think he or she knows what it takes to run a TV news show or even an entire news operation, but it's practically a guarantee that that's just not the case. Certainly, everyone who's part of a newscast or newsroom should have a say in the process because everyone has a stake in it, also it's absolutely true that talent has to believe that the people making the calls behind the scenes have their backs and won't leave them looking stupid in front of the world. But what's happened at NBC is a perfect example of the reins being taken completely off people, each of whom tends to worry only about how he or she looks in front of the world.
There's some navigating of egos involved in producing and managing a news department as well as a keen sense of which battles to fight and which ones not to. But if you hardly fight any of those battles and instead give your anchors and hosts the idea that they're bulletproof they'll begin to believe that they're bulletproof even in the face of you. Particularly in the age of media proliferation, it would make sense for there to be a prevailing belief that TV personalities simply don't have the same currency they used to, and in many ways they don't. While TV news departments sweat over their big-ticket talent the way any television production does, the reality that everyone is replaceable should never be far from anyone's minds.
NBC News spent so much time indulging in the whims of its stars and dealing with their very public ups and downs that it forgot to actually set all of that crap aside, say enough-is-enough and do the news -- do what it did so well for so long. Now it has to try to come back from this mess and the first step would be to put the authority back in the hands of the people who should have it. The people who should have had it all along and not been willing to let go of it.
At this point it may be easier said than done, but for the sake of the once-great NBC News, somebody needs to finally remind the children who's in charge.