Andrew Lack is officially back at NBC News.
NBCUniversal formally announced Friday that Lack is returning to the company in the role he had from 1993 to 2001, albeit with a new title — chairman of NBC News and MSNBC. When he gets back to his old office in Rockefeller Center, he’ll be greeted with a welcome basket full of problems that include handling the suspension of his close friend “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams.
The 67-year-old Lack most recently led the agency that oversees the federal government’s international TV and radio operations — a job he held for all of six weeks. He succeeds Pat Fili-Krushel, who remains with the company in a new role. He starts in April and will report to NBCUniversal Chief Executive Steve Burke.
Burke is hoping that Lack’s experience and institutional knowledge will help turn around a unit that has been mired in slumping ratings and bad press since Fili-Krushel’s tenure began in mid-2012, when NBC’s franchise “Today” lost its 16-year hold on the No. 1 ratings position in the morning to ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
NBC News is currently reeling over the six-month suspension of Williams for having made false statements about his reporting experience during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
In between there were other missteps, such as the clumsily executed change of moderators on its venerable Sunday roundtable program “Meet the Press,” and the blink-and-you-missed-it hiring and firing of Jamie Horowitz, the ESPN executive brought in to revitalize “Today.”
The ratings for MSNBC have also eroded in recent years as more people get real-time news from the Internet and mobile devices. (Financial cable news channel CNBC, which has faced ratings challenges with its daytime market coverage, will not be part of Lack’s portfolio for now.)
Lack represents a link to the most prosperous and expansive era in the history of NBC News. “Today” and “NBC Nightly News” each rose to No. 1 in the ratings during his years.
“Lack knows what to do to get the organization back on track because he has been there before,” said Joe Peyronnin, an associate journalism professor at Hofstra University and former news executive for CBS. “He’s a skilled and experienced news programmer.”
A news executive at a rival network called Lack “an ideal pick” who can rebuild the confidence of staffers demoralized by management’s self-inflicted wounds.
Under Lack’s watch, “Dateline NBC,” which had been rocked by a scandal over an investigation into exploding gas tanks in General Motors trucks, survived to become a prime-time hit that aired over multiple nights on the network’s schedule.
Lack also capitalized on the success of “Today,” expanding the morning program to three hours. He helped engineer NBC’s partnership with Microsoft to launch MSNBC and its website, which was among the most popular online news sources for years.
The news executive first came to NBC from CBS News, where during the 1970s and ‘80s he gained a reputation for his willingness to take risks in the face of a set-in-its-ways, old-style journalistic culture.
After winning awards for producing documentaries and specials for CBS News, he earned a chance to create a prime-time news magazine in 1985.
He came up with “West 57th,” an attempt to combine a more contemporary storytelling style and subject matter with the journalistic rigor of the venerable “60 Minutes.”
Lack’s older, established interoffice rivals at “60 Minutes” mocked the new program. But after “West 57th” was canceled, they hired his breakout star correspondents, Steve Kroft and Meredith Vieira.
Lack upset the CBS News establishment again with another short-lived news magazine called “Saturday Night with Connie Chung.” Journalistic purists roundly criticized the program’s use of reenactments of news stories — a practice now regularly used in documentary films — and the pastel portraits of Chung that appeared in the credits.
Lack was under contract at CBS when he interviewed for the job of executive producer of “NBC Nightly News” in 1993. He so impressed the top brass at NBC that he was offered the job to run the news division.
Former colleagues describe Lack as mercurial and demanding. But he’s also known for his intelligence and the ability to forge strong relationships with on-air talent and producers.
Matt Lauer and Katie Couric saw their stars rise on “Today” under Lack’s tenure, and they have remained friendly with him ever since.
Lack also identified Williams as a potential successor to Tom Brokaw on “NBC Nightly News.” A methodical plan to groom Williams for the job began under Lack and was executed in 2004 after he had left the company.
Williams remained close to Lack over the years and credited the executive for his rise to the anchor chair.
Ever since word of Lack’s return to NBC leaked, there has been speculation among his former colleagues that Williams has a better chance to return to his evening news job, a prospect that appeared to be hopeless.
“The best chance for reclaiming Brian is Lack, because Lack created Brian,” said one agent who handles news talent.
Burke, who is said to have the final say on a Williams reprieve, recently got to know Lack when they held discussions on how to manage the crisis that enveloped the network after Williams repeatedly told a false story about being on a Chinook helicopter that was forced down by enemy fire in Iraq.
Lack’s arrival will have more of a direct effect on the future of Deborah Turness, the British TV executive who was hired by Fili-Krushel to be NBC News president. Lack and Turness live in the Westchester County town of Bronxville and met several times at Williams’ suggestion before the anchor got caught up in his current controversy.
Lack left NBC in 2003, two years after being elevated to president and chief operating officer. The departure was not related to his performance. He was placed in the job by Jack Welch, then chairman of General Electric, which owned NBC at the time. But the promotion did not sit well with Bob Wright, who was still running NBC.
Since then, Lack has held executive leadership positions at Sony Music Entertainment and Bloomberg Media. He also co-produced the 2008 feature film “Cadillac Records,” which told the story of renowned Chicago rhythm and blues record label founder Leonard Chess.