If Andy Lack returns to NBC–and insiders say the deal should be done no later than Friday–it will represent the latest in a string of high-profile network news managers being brought back into key roles. As the networks fight intense battles over diminishing audiences, ABC, CBS and NBC have all shown a preference for proven leaders and known entities over promising but untested newcomers.
For NBC, Lack carries a kind of superhero status. He handpicked the network’s current crop of stars, putting Brian Williams at “Nightly News,” Matt Lauer at “Today,” and, for years, NBC News comfortably on top in the ratings. More importantly for NBC now, Lack built those successes in the immediate aftermath of a morale-shaking crisis. As Dylan Byers writes at Politico:
Lack’s return would be a fitting coda: He became president of NBC News in 1993 after Michael Gartner resigned because of Dateline’s General Motors scandal. Then, as now, the network had been demoralized by a breach of trust and a major public relations disaster (not to mention a lawsuit). Lack was tasked with the cleanup.
For the traditional broadcast networks, calling in a cleaner means choosing from a select group of well-known insiders. When Lack left NBC News in 2001, the executive producer of “Nightly News” was Steve Capus. A veteran with 20 years experience at NBC–including time as president of NBC News, Capus was chosen to step in as executive producer of the “CBS Evening News” at a time when CBS was looking for stability following Lara Logan‘s Benghazi report on “60 Minutes.”
In 2010, ABC News was still reeling from layoffs, and the network turned to another insider, Ben Sherwood, as president of the news division. A year ago, with “GMA” and “World News Tonight” winning, Sherwood was promoted to president of Disney/ABC Television Group.
And just last month, Noah Oppenheim returned to NBC and “Today,” where he was senior producer until 2008, to become the show’s SVP, replacing the short-lived tenure of Jamie Horowitz.
But going “back to the future” is, of course, no guarantee things won’t get worse. For Lack, the business has changed profoundly since his last tour at NBC. Consider this quote from a fawning profile of then “Nightly News” heir apparent Brian Williams back in 1994, when Lack told The Washingtonian the network news anchor gig wasn’t quite the prize it had once been:
In the meantime, Andy Lack is trying discourage talk about anchor succession. “I think that kind of speculation is kind of dopey,” he says. “The business has changed so much that anchor jobs are not what most young reporters aspire to.” The real action, he indicates, is at the magazine shows, which make far more money for networks than do nightly newscasts.
But television in general and TV news in particular loves the proven hit. Those primetime magazine shows that Lack mentioned back in 1994? For a time, “Dateline” was wallpapered on NBC, airing five nights a week. “Dateline,” of course, survived its 1993 scandal thanks in part to Lack. When he arrived, morale was “in the toilet,” as one insider told EW magazine at the time. “Most people who’ve been here a while feel there’s nobody at the rudder.”
That could have been written, of course, about NBC this morning–and that makes it easy to imagine the thinking among NBC and Comcast bosses: let’s get Andy in here.