It wasn’t supposed to go like this. Four years ago next week, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to talk about earnings, and Comcast’s recently-closed acquisition of NBC Universal. Roberts had just taken control of a massive company, with interests in film, local and broadcast television, theme parks, sports, and cable. But there was one part of the company he wanted to talk about: NBC News. “I will tell you my view on news, it is the crown jewel of Comcast,” he said. “It may not be the biggest part of the new company, but it is a huge responsibility and an opportunity and I take it quite seriously.”
Back then, it seemed the news brand he’d invested in was truly a jewel worth buying at almost any price–for that price would surely climb in the years to come. The news division’s morning show, “Today,” was on top–still riding high amid “the streak” of weekly ratings wins that had started back in 1995–and bringing in $500 million dollars in annual revenue.
At “NBC Nightly News,” the network’s flagship newscast, anchor Brian Williams had just led the program to its 14th consecutive season at number one, with an average audience of nearly 8.7 million viewers.
On Sunday mornings, the venerable “Meet the Press” was clinging to number one as well under the leadership of moderator David Gregory, though there were signs the program was slipping under strong challenges from CBS’ “Face the Nation” and ABC’s “This Week.” Gregory had taken over the show in 2008, 5 months after the death of Tim Russert, who had built “MTP” into a Goliath of power and profit–an estimated $60 million annually. It was also enormously important to Comcast for its influence in Washington, where the cable company had been reviled, forced to hire lobbyists, fixers and to make significant corporate donations in the hopes of gaining approval for the NBCU deal. (Comcast is currently waging another fight for approval of its $45 billion takeover of Time Warner Cable.)
Fours years later, all of that has changed–and hardly for the better. Gregory lost his job in August after “Meet the Press” fell from first to third in the ratings. To make matters worse, the firing was widely seen as bungled, with Gregory learning of his dismissal by phone.
It did not escape notice that the classless handling of Gregory’s departure was a mirror of NBC’s disastrous 2012 offloading of Ann Curry from “Today.” Curry had taken over for Meredith Vieira in 2011, and Curry later told friends it was an uphill climb from the start, and her final months were, reportedly, “a form of professional torture.”
The on-air farewell was even worse, with Curry becoming emotional, and the body language with Matt Lauer awkward at best. Howard Kurtz reported a year later that “senior NBC executives were furious, feeling that Curry had exacerbated an admittedly bad situation.”
“Today’s” legendary 16-year winning streak ended in April, 2012. After 852 weeks, ABC’s “Good Morning America” was the country’s new number one morning show. Then, in November, “Today” was again making news for bungling an exit–this time, Jamie Horowitz, hired to turn around the morning show, but then fired before his official start date. In The New York Times, Bill Carter wrote:
The reports of new turbulence at “Today” were especially upsetting for NBC News because the show is its biggest profit center, and NBC has been trying to fashion a comeback story for the show, which has trailed ABC’s “Good Morning America” since “Today” lost its lead in the morning ratings in 2012.
In September, 2013, Brian Roberts returned to “Morning Joe,” having closed on a deal to buy the remaining 49 percent stake in NBC Universal from General Electric. Roberts said Comcast decided the time was right because they were confident of the direction their investment was heading. “It’s been a great two years…we believe that these businesses are getting more valuable…all of our content…is more popular than ever.”
The next two years were likely more challenging for the “crown jewel” than Roberts may have anticipated.
So when Brian Williams essentially dragged “NBC Nightly News” from the still-on-top-no-problems pile to NBC’s growing we-need-to-find-a-fix pile, it’s perhaps understandable why NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke–a longtime Roberts lieutenant entrusted by Comcast to lead NBCU–used such strong language in his comments on Williams’ suspension. “Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News. His actions are inexcusable,” Burke wrote.
Williams has also impacted the value of a jewel that Comcast had hoped would grow in value on the strength of NBC News’ category-leading programs. All of that, now, is in question.
For Roberts, who read books about David Sarnoff to learn about the founding of NBC and the roots of NBC’s storied news division before taking ownership of the company–and who admitted to “goosebumps” upon walking into 30 Rock for the first time as owner–protecting the legacy has always been paramount.
“At its roots, and at its essence, why we bought NBC Universal is to restore, to grow, to build, invest, not to radically change or undo” what Roberts described as “an incredible history” at NBC News.