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Successor Not an Easy Find for NBC

Sep 12, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Neal Shapiro spent a day of his final week as NBC News president touring NBC News outposts in the storm-stricken Gulf Coast region. He was accompanied by General Electric Vice Chairman and NBC Universal Chairman Bob Wright and Steve Capus, who was named acting president of NBC News last week.

A decision on a permanent replacement for Mr. Shapiro may be months away.

Mr. Capus is well liked and respected within NBC News. He is known to be close with Brian Williams. Before Mr. Williams was named the primary evening news anchor, Mr. Capus executive produced MSNBC’s “The News With Brian Williams.” Mr. Capus reports to NBC Universal Television Group President Jeffrey Zucker, a former “Today” show executive producer, who is expected to offer advice and counsel. However, veterans of NBC and parent GE point out that not having a successor to announce immediately is in stark contradiction to what’s known as “the GE way”-having inside and outside successors identified and ready to step into the job.

In this case, NBC had plenty of advance notice. Mr. Shapiro signaled this past spring that he intended to resign, well before his contract would have expired next year. He told his staff last week that his final day would be this past Friday. He said he did not know “what’s next [for him], whether it’s at NBC Universal or elsewhere.”

Throughout the summer there has been industry gossip about possible successors. NBC wouldn’t comment, but sources suggested the network was considering restructuring the position. The hope was that NBC could find a candidate who could also take on oversight of CNBC, which reports to Mr. Wright and Mr. Zucker, in addition to NBC News and MSNBC, which already reports to the NBC News president.

CNBC is profitable but remains ratings-challenged. Perennial also-ran MSNBC is marginally profitable but recently fell from third to fourth place in the cable news rankings due to the success of “Nancy Grace” on CNN’s Headline News.

NBC News itself ranks first in the evening news wars. However, “NBC Nightly News” recently has been fending off viewership and demographic challenges from ABC’s “World News Tonight,” as has NBC News’ No. 1 cash cow, “Today,” from ABC’s aggressive “Good Morning America.”

The new boss will also have to deal with the status of “Today” co-anchor Katie Couric, whose $14 million-a-year contract ends next year. She recently told the New Yorker she hopes to make a decision this fall about her future.

“There has been an upsurge in the power of the talent and the talent’s willingness to use it,” one network executive said. “In the days of yore there was more deference [on the part of talent], at least ostensibly.”

“I was very close to [Chet] Huntley and [David Brinkley] and we were all poor together,” said Reuven Frank, who twice was president of NBC News, in the late ’60s and the early ’80s.

Requisites for news presidents also have changed. They must make their divisions profit centers, even as the competition intensifies for a dwindling audience. They must also open new frontiers, such as podcasts and the Internet. They must be tough enough to withstand dramatically increased public scrutiny from the ascendant, often bloodthirsty blogosphere. And they must be able to able to hold their own in a corporate culture that no longer sees news as a public trust and public service that justified having the right to operate a network.

“You have to be able to push back” even as you make clear you are a corporate team player, said the network executive.

“Dick Salant was always fighting the brass,” Mr. Frank said of one of the formative executives of TV news. “Now the news president is part of the brass.

“I’m glad I’m not there,” Mr. Frank said. “The pressures are different. The aims, though nobody will say so out loud, are different.”