NBC News president Deborah Turness has ignited a firestorm by saying that the news division hadn’t kept up with the times and had “gone to sleep,” leading to its current ratings woes.
Turness, who just celebrated her first year at the helm of NBC News, made her controversial remarks in an interview with Bill Carter of The New York Times.
“People in the organization from top to bottom recognized that NBC News hadn’t kept up with the times in all sorts of ways, for maybe 15 years,” she said. “I think the organization had gone to sleep.”
Maybe Turness thought that she was just being honest and frank, but according to The New York Post’s Page Six, she infuriated NBC News icon Tom Brokaw, as well as her predecessor Steve Capus and former NBC Universal CEO and president Jeff Zucker. The Hollywood Reporter added that Matt Lauer and Brian Williams also took umbrage at her remarks.
Turness tried to quell the unrest by sending an email to the senior staff saying she had been taken out of context and that her comments were directed at NBC’s technological and digital infrastructure, not at its editorial or news gathering operations.
But during an editorial conference call on Wednesday morning, an NBC spokesperson told The Hollywood Reporter that she backed away from the out-of-context charges she had made just the day before.
“Deborah felt it was important to address this directly with the staff on this morning’s editorial call. She explained that what she said in the story was what she has said many times before: NBC News for a long time has been in need of an investment in technology and digital infrastructure. She made it very clear that she stands by her words and was not taken out of context. She was gratified by the positive and appreciative responses she received following the call.”
Turness may have ruffled some feathers at NBC, but there is some truth to what she said. NBC News had been riding the ratings success of the Today show and Meet the Press. As the ratings on those shows started to collapse, the network held firm rather than make the necessary changes to keep the programs competitive. The decline wasn’t the result of being asleep for 15 years, but it was, however, a years-long process.
It’s too soon to tell if Turness is going to be able to wake up the news division, but she surely got their attention with the recent firing of Meet the Press host David Gregory, signaling that under-performance will only be tolerated for so long.