Andrew Lack, the joke’s on you. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking. Lack has ascended and ascended through the ranks of NBC and now has been crowned and christened King of the Mill. It was announced last week that Lack, constrained by his title as president of NBC News, will now be president and chief operating officer of all of NBC. Nearly everyone reports to him. Even the freakin’ peacock.
Many years ago when Andy Lack was still a producer at CBS News and, it seemed, one of the most imaginative young men in network television, he sat me down in his office and showed me a pilot for a new magazine show he had produced: “West 57th,” a “60 Minutes” for people under 50 with a cast whose average age was probably 40 years less than the ages of the “60 Minutes” boys.
Most of the critics trashed “West 57th.” I thought it was excitingly ahead of its time. And in that I was right. The arteries of the air are now clogged with magazine shows that aim to be as hip, youthful and smartly put together as “West 57th” was. CBS should have stuck with it; it might still be on the air.
But Lack said something at the time that alarmed me. He said if he didn’t make it in news, he’d go to Hollywood. He also wanted to produce movies. That was kind of sacrilegious. When you took the News Vows in network television, especially at CBS, you were expected not to go tippy-toeing over the line into Hollywood. Indeed, the entertainment people were considered The Enemy, pigs hogging prime-time hours that the news division lusted after.
Even though “60 Minutes” was already making zillions for CBS, network executives were too shortsighted to give Lack’s program much support.
West 57th to West Coast
Anyway, here’s Sammy Glick-oops, I mean Andy Lack-finally crowned king of NBC, and it’s a job that seems more a curse now than a crowning achievement. Or, at best, an irrelevancy. The three broadcast networks have diminished in terms of impact and cultural clout since the days when Lack toiled at and on West 57th. (CBS News headquarters in New York is in a converted dairy on West 57th Street, hence the title, one that makes a lot more sense, by the way, than the meaningless “48 Hours” does.)
It certainly would appear that Scott Sassa’s days as president of NBC West Coast are numbered, wouldn’t it? When Garth Ancier got the boot, everyone assumed Sassa was in his office breathing heavily and thinking, “There but for the grace of who-knows-what go I.” But perhaps Lack will keep him on as someone to blame should the new fall schedule slip ever so nimbly into the toilet.
Moving into the NBC News presidency is Neal Shapiro, executive producer of “Dateline NBC,” the least distinguished magazine of them all, the one that stars Betsy and Buffy Broadcaster, otherwise known as Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips. What a team they are, Pauley the prim schoolmarm (NBC missed a bet by not making her the reigning dominatrix on “Weakest Link”) and Phillips delivering every line as if he had rehearsed it 12 times, studied with Stanislavski and Thinks He’s Cute. Like Peter Jennings, he looks as though at any moment he might start licking the camera lens the way a puppy licks your hand.
What a rogues’ gallery, that NBC News crowd, the ship of fools that Lack used as a vehicle to take him to the tippy tippy top. And my what fiascos he survived. Everyone wondered where he bought the superthick coat of Teflon he wore. Remember when, in late 1995, NBC News grandly proclaimed it had secured O.J. Simpson for an exclusive, live interview in prime time? And then, like two days later, issued a statement saying the interview was off because Simpson’s lawyers had rather strongly (and wisely) advised their client against it.
Lack’s defense, voiced on an edition of “Larry King Live” on which I happened to be a panelist, was that NBC had spoken directly to Simpson and therefore didn’t feel it was necessary to talk to his legal staff. Were they silly? Here is a man who had been wrapped in a thick carpet of lawyers for months and months-but suddenly the Dream Team wouldn’t care what kind of shenanigans their client decided to pull off?
I thought Lack had cracked, frankly. Three years later, he did another pirouette into a mud puddle when he was quoted as saying, “I am America’s news leader,” in reference to NBC’s having so many news programs, plus cable networks, in operation. This was just before Lack hired Geraldo Rivera and made possible his comeback by giving him his own show on CNBC.
Lack was very shrewd with MSNBC. He raided the newsrooms of American newspapers for talent to use-for free, mostly-on the network, thus making it unlikely those reporters would turn around and trash the shoddy goods MSNBC was putting out. It was the first news-talk network; no news but lots of people talking about the news. The Fox News Channel now does the same thing but with more zest and hysteria and of course plenty of right-wing seasoning.
Lack’s rise to the top followed by only a short time the promotion of Jeff Zucker to NBC Entertainment, his reward for producing the “Today” show, the so-called news program that sucks up zillions in advertising revenue each year for NBC. Zack and Lucker-sorry, Lack and Zucker-are hardly the first lads to jump over the line from entertainment to news. And of course, lassies leap too. In June, former “NYPD Blue” co-star Andrea Thompson joins CNN Headline News as an anchor, perhaps the beginning of a trend …
“And now, here’s J. Lo with the Low-down!”
“For that story, let’s go to our Washington correspondent, Jane Fonda!”
“Here with her in-depth analysis is Monica Lewinsky!”
The line is gone
Time was when critics furrowed their brows when reporting on such developments and worriedly decried the “blurring” of “the line” between news and entertainment. And then as we bemoaned the blurrings, somebody would pipe up and point out that Edward R. Murrow did “Person to Person” and Mike Wallace once did a cigarette commercial. And so line-blurring was supposedly nothing new.
Maybe it’s nothing new now, but it’s done on a scale the likes of which Mr. Murrow and Mr. Wallace probably could not have imagined. Maybe there was as much show-biz savvy as journalistic genius in “West 57th,” Lack’s onetime pride and joy, but it didn’t seem so. On both sides of the line, they’re in the storytelling business, and yet it saddens me deeply that the great Dan Rather is required to stoop so low that he must entice viewers to tune in for “our Monday Mystery on tonight’s `48 Hours”’ and then ballyhoo some spurious piffle about a 30-year-old murder that once rocked a small town in Minnesota.
The lines have been blurred into mush. They aren’t there anymore. They were good lines, fine lines, and they were there for a reason. Nowadays, instead of newsniks doing battle with the corporate hierarchy and going up against the pandering sellouts of the entertainment division, everybody is in the same boat, a boat with whores at the oars and a dollar sign carved into the hull. And merrily, merrily down the stream it goes.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily-life is but a dream.