Keeping NBC News in top form

Jan 7, 2002  •  Post A Comment

When Neal Shapiro became president of NBC News last spring, he knew he was going to have to steer the division through tough economic times. He thought the biggest challenges would be keeping Katie Couric on “Today” and Tom Brokaw on “Nightly News.” Then came Sept. 11.
Mr. Shapiro, a boyish-looking 43, came from ABC to NBC News in 1993 as the executive producer who would, against daunting odds, save “Dateline NBC” from such self-inflicted wounds as the time it faked material in a report about the safety of GM trucks. He turned the magazine show into a versatile franchise that has proved as durable as Mr. Shapiro’s reputation as a quiet, unflappable guy, a good guy who inspires much loyalty from his troops.
The man who has always considered himself a team player and who takes leadership cues from Yankees manager Joe Torre, recently sat down with Electronic Media for the first extended interview of his presidency.
EM: Where do things stand with talks regarding `Nightly News’ anchor Tom Brokaw’s future with the NBC News team? Recent comments by Mr. Brokaw sound as if he’s made up his mind to stay. Has the Brokaw situation essentially resolved itself?
Mr. Shapiro: I think you’re reading too much into that story. I think Tom’s position has been and continues to be that he will remain a part of NBC News.
Now exactly what that role is going to be, that’s what we don’t know about. Tom has been very clear that somewhere along the way he wants to do other things. He’s a great writer, he’s got a zillion interests, he’s involved in philanthropic work, he’s an adventurer. There are a lot of things he’d like to do. I told him I always want him to be a part of NBC News. So at some point I think he will give up the anchor chair and do other things, which could be documentaries, special series, working for our cable interests. There are so many things Tom can do and still be involved with television news without being chained to the anchor desk as he has been for 35 years.
He and I agree we’re going to talk about what the timing of that transition is. We haven’t really talked about what the perfect sense of timing is.
EM: So we should scratch the question about what this means for Brian Williams?
Mr. Shapiro: I am such a fan of Brian Williams. He’s hard working, smart, curious about the world, dedicated to his craft. I couldn’t be any happier knowing that Tom Brokaw works here and I get to work with him. And I couldn’t be any happier knowing that one day if Tom Brokaw decides he’s not going to work here that we have Brian Williams waiting in the wings.
EM: NBC kept Katie Couric with a record four-year deal worth more than $60 million. While most accounts of the deal focused on the dollars Ms. Couric will bank, even more intriguing is the amount of self-determination and flexibility the contract seems to grant her. Is there any precedent for a network giving up so much cash and control of a valuable asset?
Mr. Shapiro: Of course I’m delighted that Katie is staying. It was one of the biggest challenges that we faced. Katie was incredibly important to the success of the `Today’ show. There’s been a lot of speculation about the details of the contract. I’m not going to talk about that publicly. I will repeat what Katie has said, which is that she intends to stay at the `Today’ show for a good long time.
EM: Is securing Matt Lauer next on your list?
Mr. Shapiro: I’ve got a long list, but Matt’s right near the top.
EM: Do you think the events of Sept. 11, which reminded people of the power of television coverage at its best, helped Katie Couric decide to stay?
Mr. Shapiro: I’m not sure how much Katie’s mind has changed since before Sept. 11.
There’s no question the `Today’ show has changed. The whole country has changed. And as the leader of morning TV, what the `Today’ show does is vitally important. There are so many millions of people who get up every day and depend on the `Today’ show to tell them what happened overnight, whether our world is a safe place, and as we work through this crisis, as the country recovers, how do they do it, how do they get through it emotionally, psychologically, and how is life returning to normal–and what about the rest of our world?
EM: For years, `Today’ was considered invincible. Some people still say it is invincible, but there’s this drumbeat of late that it’s being challenged by `Good Morning America.’ How do you assess the competitive situation in the mornings?
Mr. Shapiro: First, let me say I think the people at `Good Morning America’ and the people at CBS [`The Early Show’] work very hard. It’s always been a very competitive race in the morning.
That said, I think we sometimes overstate [ratings for] a week or two and suggest that that’s a big, gigantic change in the competitive structure. In the long run, the `Today’ show has been the dominant morning show, it continues to be the dominant morning show, and I think it will continue to be the dominant morning show.
I don’t see any big gigantic change in anything.
EM: Is it possible to overstate the importance, both financially and imagewise, that the `Today’ show is to the network and the news division?
Mr. Shapiro: The `Today’ show is an incredibly, incredibly important part of this news division and to this network and not just because it–

EM: –Clones cash?
Mr. Shapiro: Not just because it makes money. I really think it’s important about helping to set the national agenda, helping us to work through critical times. It’s no secret I care a lot about it. I spend a lot of time, as part of my job, working through the issues involved in the `Today’ show. I’m new. There’s new senior people in that job, and so I’m trying to get to know them.
EM: We all know that you had been looking for a strong No. 2 producer for the `Today’ show. Last week you made it official that Diane Masciale, who worked for you for six years at `Dateline NBC,’ is the new senior broadcast producer on the program.
Mr. Shapiro: It would be unfair to suggest [Ms. Masciale] got the job because she is a woman or because I feel only a woman can talk to Katie Couric–
EM: –We were not implying that. But there haven’t been a lot of women in key positions on morning shows, even though women are a large part of the audience.
Mr. Shapiro: When I first took this job, one of the things I said I want to do is work on diversity at the network.
We haven’t been hiring a lot … but the chances I’ve had, I have tried to find smart, accomplished women and promote them: the new vice president, Lisa Hsia, who’s terrifically talented. We promoted Jocelyn Cordova from `Dateline’ to work with Elena Nachmanoff [VP of talent development]. We named Sharon Scott as executive producer of NBC News Productions. So I haven’t had that many openings, but when I have, I certainly wanted to stick to what I said in the beginning of this job, which is, `We will be a better news division the more we reflect the diversity of our viewing audience.’
EM: When you made your transition from executive producer of `Dateline’ to president of NBC News, you didn’t make many changes. Do you foresee any structural changes?
Mr. Shapiro: As far as the management structure goes, I’m delighted to be working with the people I’m working with. And I was lucky to succeed [now-NBC President] Andy Lack, who had been here for a long time. I knew a lot of the players already.
In the long, long term, my job is to keep finding new and talented people and try to find roles where they can succeed. Now, hopefully, as the economy comes back, NBC News will be a growing place, so there’ll be more opportunities, more shows, more programs, more areas that NBC News is working with. So I hope that will open up more positions and I can keep finding the next generation of leaders and keep promoting them.
EM: Do you think there will be a time in the foreseeable future where the division can expand without a significant new business being started? Will there be a natural expansion after all the belt tightening?
Mr. Shapiro: I hope so. [GE Chairman] Jeffrey Immelt h
as made no secret that he really believes in NBC and really believes in growing this whole company. I believe that includes opportunities for the news division. Already we’ve bought Telemundo.
EM: What is that going to mean for the news division and you?
Mr. Shapiro: For the news division already, it may mean a chance to work with Telemundo. They have a morning show, they have an evening show, they have a magazine show.
We’ve had one meeting already with them where we’ve talked about stories we’ve done for `Dateline,’ and could that be helpful to them? There may be any number of examples where there’s breaking news and they have someone there and we have someone there, so it may expand our ability to cover certain stories or even find certain stories.
EM: How would you describe the relationship you envision with them? Will they be like MSNBC to you, for example, or will they in any fashion report to you?
Mr. Shapiro: They are a separate network. How the news divisions will work we literally have just begun talking about.
EM: What is next on the to-do list, and how long is that list?
Mr. Shapiro: It’s a long to-do list. When I was first at `Dateline,’ I used to make a to-do list, and I used to try not to go home until the whole to-do list was done. I’ve given that up in this job.
EM: How long ago did you give that up?
Mr. Shapiro: When I first got here, I realized there are so many sorts of long-term projects that I need to be part of now that you can’t do in a day.
EM: How derailed was your to-do list by the events of Sept. 11.
Mr. Shapiro: Sept. 11 derailed everything and not–I mean I have a great management team, but Sept. 11 was all about all hands on deck, and we were worrying about one great story. And there were a million issues to worry about in that one great story. My management team was so good that when we had an anthrax problem in this building, something that nobody ever planned for, there were no textbooks to consult. Even Edward R. Murrow never had to deal with this.
As far as I know, I was the first news president in the history of journalism to have to deal with anthrax–I was lucky. The senior people of this division kept the division running, where for a week I spent very little time worrying about stories and a lot more about managing the issues in the building, people’s concerns about their own safety, explaining to people what we were doing.
EM: Do you feel like everybody is past the anthrax incident emotionally?
Mr. Shapiro: Yeah, I do.
EM: You are the only network news division that has a 24-hour news channel. How does that impact the bottom line now?
Mr. Shapiro: I think it’s a big advantage for NBC News, because there are many events which we would have to cover anyway, many places we would have to be anyway, and if we just had a broadcast channel, people maybe would file for the `Today’ show and `Nightly News’ and that would be it. Now–and sometimes I’m sure they don’t think this is an advantage–but for the bottom line I think it’s a big advantage, knowing that our costs can be spread not just on the broadcast side but on the cable side, so that people can work for both.
EM: The amortization of the costs was a major motivating factor at the beginning of MSNBC.
Mr. Shapiro: It’s great to have a cost-saving device, but in these days the big advantage is that we’re in the news game all the time. I know when I was in the news-gathering business, what was frustrating sometimes was that you’d get this great story and you would have to wait to get it on the evening newscast–if it got on. And if it didn’t, nobody saw it. Maybe you could stay up and try to get it to the morning shows the next day. You had all these great journalists competing, fighting over 221/2 minutes of `Nightly News.’ That was your chance to get on. So to have a story like this, which is incredibly important, and know if you get a big story you can get on the air right now, and if you have a lot of detail, you can [go live].
As we sit here, we know that a tape of Osama bin Laden is going to be released. And we think it will be about 40 minutes long. And it’s great to know that we can decide how to deal with it. If there are big debates about translating even one word, we can spend 50 minutes looking at it with Arab translators, going over it, getting different points of view, because we have a 24-hour cable channel.
So I think, yes, it’s great to have a financial structure that works, and part of my job, obviously, is to manage costs. But intellectually, from a journalism point of view, it’s just great to be in the 24-hour-news game.
EM: But ABC and CBS between themselves and with CNN have been looking for ways to cut news costs. Those talks have never included NBC. Why is that?
Mr. Shapiro: We have on occasion looked at news sharing or pool arrangements. I’m always interested in those. I don’t want to compromise the quality of the journalism, but especially when it comes down to logistics, if there are ways to do that, I’m happy to do that.
EM: But in Afghanistan, for example, ABC and CBS pooled in several areas. Is MSNBC that much of a stumbling block to you guys being part of something like that?
Mr. Shapiro: I think it depends on the situation. I have good friends at CBS and ABC, and I’m always happy to talk to them about cutting costs. If they read this, they know my number.
EM: When MSNBC was young and there was a breaking story, basically what they got was your news coverage. Now they’ve got their train on their track. How does that work with the reporting structure and your relationship with [MSNBC President] Erik Sorenson?
Mr. Shapiro: MSNBC has certainly made terrific progress. If they were a struggling little caboose when they first started, now I think they’ve got their own bunch of trains. The advantage, however, is that we still share a lot of material. Erik Sorenson has been great to work with. We talk every day. We continue to find ways we can work together, so that when there’s still an important story, which can either be broken by Norah O’Donnell, maybe, at the Pentagon, and when she reports it there, we get that information to NBC, or by Robert Hager, who’s reporting for NBC … he shows up on MSNBC. I think that continues to work well.
EM: Has there been any more thought given to where CNBC prime time might go?
Mr. Shapiro: As I talk to you, we’re actually discussing a new show that NBC News is producing for CNBC. We hope to make that show work. It just started. It’s called `America Now’ [at 8 p.m. (ET) weeknights]. It’s a sort of show-in-progress, but we’re happy about where it’s going. In the long run, can we make MSNBC and CNBC have distinctly different prime-time schedules? In the long run, that’s probably where we want to go, but we’re not there now.
EM: The war on terrorism was a big wake-up call for younger viewers, the audience that so far hadn’t really bonded with regular news programming. How do you balance the high costs of international coverage with the real demand from viewers to cover the situation?
Mr. Shapiro: My bosses at NBC and at GE have said, “Cover the news you need to cover. Don’t spend more than you need to cover it, but cover it.” They understand that.
In the long run, our job is to continue to build NBC News and to keep us America’s news leader. You can’t do that if you cheat on the biggest story of our times. That said, any good manager wants to spend money and resources efficiently, not to waste them. I don’t think those are diametrically opposed.
EM: You talked about expanding, but there’s also a sense out there that there will be more thinning of the ranks. Is this going to happen largely when contracts expire?
Mr. Shapiro: I’m not even sure there’s going to be thinning of the ranks. The number of people we have at NBC News will change. If we don’t add more programming it will diminish, because I think technology will continue to find more and more ways for people to be more productive.
Look in front of you. [He points to the bank of nine TVs stacked in his conference areas.] These
are all nonfiction cable channels. Who’s to say that in the future we may not be producing for every one of those. Discovery we produce for. Court [TV] we produce for. History [Channel] we produce for already.
A lot of those are small relationships at the moment, because a lot of them are new. But those can all get a lot bigger. That’s beyond saying one day NBC could own any of those channels.
EM: Will the rest of this season and next season be feast-or-famine years for `Dateline NBC’?
Mr. Shapiro: I think it’s going to be a consistent year for `Dateline.’ I think in the end we’ll do around 140 to 160 shows a year. And I think next year we’ll do somewhere in that range.
Jeff Zucker and I have worked together a long time. The other day we were in a meeting and he was talking about a certain night–I’ll be vague because this may or may not happen–and about what could we put in this time period. I said, `Gee, there’s this series that “Dateline” has done that could go there.’ He said, `That’s a good idea.’ It was just a free exchange of ideas. There was no sense of there are walls between us–`Oh that’s a news division idea.’
If that happened, there could be more `Datelines,’ but there could be fewer. But I think `Dateline’ will continue to be a consistent player on NBC’s schedule. If that was unclear years ago, I think everybody gets it: There’s a certain amount of `Datelines’ that makes financial sense.