NBC’s Lack is Sony’s gain

Jan 13, 2003  •  Post A Comment

“I feel like I landed on the moon,” Andy Lack said when I asked him for his reaction to his new job as head of Sony Music. The record business is a nutty and cuckoo business, God knows, but so, to put it mildly, is television-“Which makes me superbly qualified” for the new position, Lack said jokingly.
Oops, he’ll have to call me back. Katie Couric is on the line from Saudi Arabia, no doubt calling to congratulate and commiserate. Lack’s big leap from TV to music ends a turbulent era in American television, but hell, television has had more turbulent eras than anyone could count. One turbulent era ends, another begins. Sometimes they overlap. Turbulence goes with the territory-always has and probably always will.
That’s one reason that some of us who “watch television” in more than one sense of that phrase will never grow tired of it or at least never grow bored by it. Even if there are 500 channels and nothing on, backstage there’s bound to be turmoil, treachery, angst and ire.
Insiders say the stress and skullduggery within NBC’s executive ranks in recent months was ferocious enough to make “Fear Factor” look tame. And tasteful. They use words like “chaos” and “open warfare” to describe the sticky situation between NBC chairman Bob Wright and Lack, who had been rewarded for his great success as president of NBC News with the new job of NBC president and CEO.
But then the new job turned out to be the no-job. Wright decided that life in the madhouse of television was a lot more interesting than a mundane existence amongst the pea-brained bean counters of General Electric, where he was supposed to be spending all his time. So he essentially asked Lack to shove over and make room for him on the throne.
Lack doesn’t sound at all bitter, but fate had played a dirty trick. Soon, sources say, the company was divided along Lack and Wright lines and into Lack and Wright camps. Dick Ebersol refused to report to Lack no matter who told him he had to, choosing to report to Wright instead. NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker answered to Wright as well.
And what did Lack get? Telemundo. NBC acquired the Spanish-language channel and Wright insultingly put it in Lack’s basket. Things reportedly got so silly that seating arrangements at NBC functions were carefully calculated so as not to put Wright people among Lack supporters and to make sure Lack didn’t have a more prominent position than Wright did.
Lack dismisses all the stories that suggest there was a war going on. “It certainly has not been as intense for me as it has been for those who enjoy stirring the pot a little bit,” he says. “When you’re the subject of that kind of talk, you’re often the last person to know what’s being said.”
Was it a living hell? Lack laughs. “No, no. Bob is a great guy. He gave me the opportunity of a lifetime.” Lack does concede, though, that there was “an awkwardness” created “by my coming up to the executive suites here. But to our credit, Bob and I never let it hurt us or hurt the company.”
GE is strait-laced and stuffy, however, and its reigning elite was unhappy about all the rumors percolating. Lack was supposedly courted by Disney, but the plan fell through. Wright vowed to get Lack out by last summer, but that scheme foundered too.
To some extent, Lack is getting out of the frying pan and into the charbroiler, since Sony Music under its departed boss Tommy Mottola had been at the center of many an embarrassing brouhaha. But Lack will arrive fresh and unsullied by past calamities and looks forward to getting the company back on track.
And he will be working for the first time in decades with his old friend and mentor, the hugely respected Sir Howard Stringer, Sony’s charming chairman. They have remained friends through all the changes both have gone through during the passing eras.
Stringer and Lack worked together on a documentary or two when both were at CBS News many harvest moons ago. That’s when I got to know both of them, after writing admiringly of their work. Though I got clobbered here and there for adoring and supporting “West 57th,” Lack’s then-innovative magazine, I still think it was a great show and better (certainly better looking) than some of the magazine shows still on the air.
The Peter Principle at work
This is pure speculation, but I get the feeling that neither Stringer nor Lack was as purely happy in a job as they were then, discounting little things like money and fame and creature comforts. They had their sleeves rolled up. They worked into the wee hours of the night getting the edits just right. They enjoyed the collaborative process-and each other’s company-and they took tremendous pride in their work. CBS News was indisputably the best in the business.
And because they were so terrifically good at what they did, they naturally stopped doing it; that is, they were rewarded by being promoted into the corporate hierarchy. Whatever-they are both men of conscience and quality.
The only time I ever had the privilege of speaking to Paddy Chayefsky, he told me he got out of the television business because he “didn’t want to be hysterical all the time.” It was pretty much the case from day one. Now with new challenges arising daily, with the technology evolving faster than new terms can be invented to describe it, network television is as fever-pitched as ever. In some people it brings out meanness and rancor. Others are able to hold onto their humanity and have no trouble facing themselves in the mirror each morning.
“I’m going to miss it,” Lack says of this crazy world. “But life circles around, and you never know what might happen down the road.” For now, he says, “it’s in the rearview mirror for me.”
Whether he’ll enjoy walking on the moon remains to be seen. It does seem likely he’ll return to television eventually, because he takes to it so naturally; he and TV seem kind of made for each other. Some people might not consider that to be a compliment, but I certainly mean it as one.