In his first public remarks since taking control of NBC News in April, Andy Lack acknowledged on Monday that “we’re playing hurt” because of the controversy surrounding suspended Nightly News anchor Brian Williams.
Several hours after Williams’s attorney, Robert Barnett, was spotted at NBC headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Center, Lack promised a gathering of network-owned and affiliate station representatives that the decision on the anchor’s fate would come “soon.”
“He said the end is in sight,” recounted an attendee of the closed-door meeting at Manhattan’s AXA Equitable skyscraper, a couple of blocks from Radio City Music Hall, where network executives had just unveiled its prime-time offerings for next fall and the 2016 mid-season.
A second attendee of the affiliates meeting said Lack did not specify what he meant by “soon,” and nobody in the audience tried to obtain clarification during a very brief Q&A.
“It wasn’t clear if ‘soon’ means tomorrow or July,” this attendee said.
During the three-hour meeting, which also focused on NBC’s prime-time entertainment menu and its plans for football and Olympics coverage, NBC News Chairman Lack argued that even though his division is receiving negative publicity, it continues to excel journalistically.
His second-in-command, Deborah Turness, cited NBC’s coverage of the recent earthquake in Nepal and the death of a young African-American while in the custody of the Baltimore Police, as well as a Today show segment on Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.
The 67-year-old Lack was recruited to fix the Peacock Network’s troubled news division (a job he held in the 1990s) after a 13-year absence, and is grappling not only with the Williams flap but also with the second-place ratings of the once-dominant Today show and the shrinking viewership of MSNBC, the cable news outlet he helped create.
“He said they’re ‘playing hurt’ but they’re still putting on some great work,” the second attendee told The Daily Beast, adding that both Lack and his second-in-command, NBC News President Deborah Turness, heaped high praise on Nightly News weekend anchor Lester Holt during their prepared remarks.
Holt—who, like Williams, is 55—has been presiding over the weeknight Nightly News for the past three months, and holding his own in the ratings, while the network has been conducting an internal review of Williams’s public exaggerations and embellishments of his experiences covering news events, both on and off the air.
“Andy referenced the presence of the elephant in the room, he referenced the investigation, and the diligence, and he referenced the seriousness with which everyone at NBC News is taking it, but that everybody was going to get to the task at hand,” said the attendee. “He did a good job of defusing things. During the question period, nobody even asked about it.”
Before the meeting got underway, the owner of a Northern Wisconsin NBC affiliate expressed frustration that the Williams controversy had dragged on so long without a resolution, saying that while the flap is having negligible impact on viewers and advertising, it is damaging NBC News’s brand. “It’s the franchise,” this owner told The Daily Beast.
During their presentation, Lack and Turness relied on a teleprompter—and in introducing his British-born lieutenant, whose tenure has been rocky since she joined NBC News in 2013 from Britain’s ITN, Lack did his comic impression of an Englishman.
This may account for Lack addressing this reporter, in a plummy accent, as “My dear man!” while declining an interview request as he departed the meeting.