Confident Balancing Act of NBC News’ Michael Gartner

Times Staff Writer

Michael Gartner and his wife began a two-week vacation in Scotland and Wales Monday. This indicates a certain self-confidence. He became president of NBC News only two months ago.

But the vacation was planned last January, long before NBC approached him about the job, he said in an interview before he left, and he felt it was important to take it. “You have to balance all aspects of your life, including your home life,” he said.

Furthermore, he said, “there are terrific people who can run this network while I’m gone. They know where to reach me.”


Tim Russert, a senior vice president, will be in charge while he is away, Gartner said.

A bit unusual, this. Network TV today is a world of high anxiety--Tums for breakfast, rumors for lunch, pink-slips for dinner.

But then, Gartner, 49, has an advantage of sorts. He had never worked in TV until Aug. 1, when he succeeded Lawrence Grossman, who left NBC News after four years as its president.

Gartner was a newspaperman--a senior executive of the Gannett Co.--when hired by NBC chief Robert C. Wright, a former General Electric executive who himself had no network experience when GE put him in charge of NBC after buying it in 1985.

Gartner began at the Wall Street Journal at age 22. An Iowa native, he has been editor of the Des Moines Register--one of its mailboxes is on the wall outside his NBC office now--and president of its parent company.

What hadn’t he anticipated when he began his first job in TV?

“I think what surprised me is the vast numbers of non-air people it takes to support the operation,” said Gartner, referring to the off-camera staff of producers, editors, newswriters and technicians.

Exactly how many it takes is a touchy point these days. Like CBS and ABC, NBC has trimmed its staff over the past several years in an effort to keep costs down as it faces increasing competition from cable TV, independent stations and videocassettes.

Under GE orders to break even financially by 1991, NBC News in the last three years has gone from 1,400 employees worldwide to what NBC officials said was just over 1,000 before Gartner arrived.

Another 110 have been notified that their employment will be terminated at the end of the year, including 60 whom the network said were only hired on a temporary basis for the presidential campaigns, political conventions and Olympic coverage.

“I think it’s more or less ended,” Gartner said when asked about whether there will be more “downsizing,” as some call staff cuts. “To the best of my knowledge,” he said, the process will be finished at the end of this year.

A short, brisk man whose customary uniform of the day includes suspenders and a bow tie, Gartner will be involved when he returns from vacation with another cost-savings effort--although he speaks of the matter as something that may not transpire until next year or even as long as three years from now.

The matter is NBC’s attempt to buy nearly 38% of Visnews, an international TV news agency owned by two British companies--the Reuter news service, which owns 88.75%, and the British Broadcasting Corp., which owns the balance. If the deal goes through, Gartner said, it’s possible that some NBC News personnel overseas--but not correspondents--could end up working for Visnews “or vice versa. That hasn’t all been worked out.”

NBC News, which currently has 22 overseas offices that range from one-person outposts to its 60-member London bureau, has subscribed to London-based Visnews for more than 20 years. The network uses Visnews’ foreign footage and reports as a supplement to its own, and on a nearly exclusive basis. Public TV’s “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” and WGBH-TV in Boston are Visnews’ only other major U.S. subscribers, according to Reuter officials.

Some in the industry speculate that the lower pay scale for Visnews’ staffers, compared with that for NBC troops, is playing a large part in NBC’s bid to buy into the company. Not so, Gartner said:

“I don’t think that (pay) is the issue. I think the issue is that Visnews has a presence in a lot of places that we don’t, and there are some places where we both have a presence. . . . There might be some efficiencies, if we had a big investment in it, that could eliminate some duplication.”

Reuters would keep a controlling interest in Visnews’ if NBC bought into the company. How much say could NBC News have in Visnews’ story assignments?

“I just don’t know,” Gartner said. “That deal isn’t done yet. And it isn’t something I’ve been deeply involved in. I’m just not informed enough to say what precise role we would have in Visnews other than as a major investor.”

Also awaiting Gartner are questions on what part NBC News will play in the parent company’s new cable TV venture, the Consumer News and Business Channel (CNBC), which will start in February.

Gartner said he regularly meets with Thomas S. Rogers, the president of the recently created NBC Cable division, “and I stand ready to help him in any way I can through the NBC News resources. The precise way in which we’ll help him get launched hasn’t been determined.”

CNBC’s president, Michael Eskridge, has said the new operation, which will have its own staff, won’t be run by NBC News, although it may occasionally use NBC News staffers. It also will have its own news policies and guidelines, he says.

Gartner isn’t worried about a conflict with NBC News policies when and if his correspondents are loaned to the cable operation.

“Well, certainly they’re not going to ask, and we’re not going to do, anything that would run counter to any policy of NBC News,” he said. “I can’t believe that they’re going to have many policies that are different from ours.”

Gartner was asked what bugs him most about his new job. He smiled. “That I don’t have enough time every day to do all the things that I want to do,” he said, “to see all the people I want to see, to read all the things I want to read, and to watch all things I want to watch.”

Still, he finds time to keep his hand in print--specifically with a weekly column he writes for the Wall Street Journal, and a three-times-a-week column on words and language that is syndicated to about 50 newspapers and also appears in Advertising Age magazine, a major trade publication.

He’ll continue each of them, he said. He shrugged. “That’s my golf, that’s my therapy.”