Vanity Fair: Comcast Takeover of NBC Precipitated 'One Debacle After Another'

Comcast Corporation chairman & CEO Brian Roberts / AP
April 7, 2015

Cable giant Comcast's takeover of NBCUniversal in 2011 has precipitated "one debacle after another" at the network's news division, according to a new report from Vanity Fair that illustrates a company more concerned with "corporate vision" than good television.

The lengthy article shows consistent mismanagement by executives that have coincided with disasters with flagship shows Nightly News, Meet the Press and Today, bottoming out in February when longtime anchor Brian Williams was caught lying about being in an Iraq War helicopter hit by RPG fire in 2003.

Vanity Fair reported that "much of the blame" goes to executives Deborah Turness, Patricia Fili-Krushel, and Steve Burke:

When Comcast took over, they had the No. 1 morning show, the No. 1 Sunday show, and the No. 1 evening broadcast," says a former top NBC executive. "That’s all completely fallen apart. I don’t know how you blame anyone but Comcast and the people it brought in. It’s been a nightmare."

Behind the scenes much of the blame has been laid at the feet of three executives: Turness, a British-trained newcomer to U.S. television; Fili, who had virtually no experience in journalism; and Fili’s boss, the steely, driven C.E.O. Comcast installed to run NBCUniversal, Steve Burke.

Under Burke the network has done well overall—its ratings have rebounded from last to first in the coveted 18–49 demographic, and NBCUniversal’s profits were up 18 percent last year—but he and his deputies, their critics charge, time and again proved unable to rein in the news division’s high-priced talent.

"News is a very particular thing, NBC is a very particular beast, and Deborah, well, she really doesn’t have a fucking clue," says a senior NBC executive involved in recent events. "She’s letting the inmates run the asylum. You have kids? Well, if you let them, they’ll have ice cream every night. Same thing in TV. If you let the people on air do what they want, whenever they want, this is what happens."

Prompted by the financial crisis in 2008, General Electric sold NBCUniversal to the Philadelphia-based Comcast, and a feeling quickly emerged among NBC News executives that Comcast brass Brian Roberts and Burke were not concerned with managing NBC's broad array of talent. One former executive told Vanity Fair "they just didn't believe that mattered."

After helping bring about the messy departure of Ann Curry from Today in 2012, Burke "initiated a corporate reorganization" wherein NBC News, CNBC, and cable news arm MSNBC would become one large news division that would be run by "Burke's trusted deupty" Fili-Krushel. Vanity Fair makes clear that NBC insiders view Fili-Krushel as a journalistic lightweight and a "popular punching bag" who, according to one source, "knows nothing about any of the things she is managing."

"You have to understand something about Comcast," says another recently departed NBC executive. "There’s practically no attention paid to actual domain expertise—like, zero. The fact of the matter is, in certain businesses, certain things matter. If you’re going to be made the head of a shoe business, you need to actually know that shoes need to be sourced and designed. In the big corporate vision of NBCU, there’s almost no regard for that line of thinking. If you fit into a mold, if you fulfill a loyalty obligation or a don’t-make-waves obligation, or if you can just be pegged into the Comcast pegboard, you get to be in charge of stuff. That’s Pat."

It was Fili-Krushel's idea to hire Turness as NBC News head, and it was the atmosphere of limited interaction with talent that led to the network's troubled response to the Williams scandal in February. When a Facebook post emerged by a pilot asserting that Williams' on-air story about the Iraq War helicopter was untrue, Williams failed to tell Fili-Krushel even when they had lunch the next day. As the scandal grew deeper and it became clear Williams was not telling the truth, Turness played only a peripheral role in drafting an apology.

As such, Williams' meandering response on a Nightly News broadcast where he said he "made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago" only made things worse. Said one insider:

"Believe me, if [Jeff] Zucker had been there, someone like Allison Gollust [a longtime NBC News P.R. chief, now at CNN] would’ve been sitting with him for days working out the wording of this apology. The lack of a relationship with Turness played a huge role in how this played out. Because it was the apology that caused the problem, not the crime itself."

Steve Burke learned of things only after the apology broadcast. Even then the enormity of Williams’s gaffes had yet to sink in. According to insiders, it wasn’t until someone found a video clip of Williams telling a version of the same story on David Letterman’s show in 2013 that Turness and Fili realized how much trouble Williams was in.

"When we watched the Letterman clip, [the reaction was] horror, absolute horror," says one insider. "You could tell this was going to be very bad. It put us into a whole new universe."

Williams is serving a six-month suspension, and it remains in the air whether he'll return to the anchor chair while NBC investigates other alleged fabrications.