Who Calls the Shots

Last Tuesday, Tom Touchet was quoted on Web site NewsBlues.com dismissing buzz that he was about to be fired as executive producer of Today, saying that NBC News President Neal Shapiro had personally assured him the rumor was “ridiculous.”

Less than 24 hours later, Touchet was history, replaced by somebody with scant news experience, NBC Sports producer Jim Bell. In tandem with that announcement, MSNBC VP Phil Griffin was named senior VP of NBC News, with oversight of Today, providing the hard-news bona fides that Bell lacks.

As always with these changes at high-profile shows, there’s more going on than the trade of one show-runner for another in an effort to reverse a ratings slide (Good Morning America on ABC has whittled Today’s lead to a few hundred thousand viewers lately). How these things are handled often reveals much about who is actually calling the shots. The Today shakeup, for example, was proof positive that the guy in charge of NBC News is NBC Universal Television Group President Jeff Zucker, not news division President Shapiro.

That certainly would explain Shapiro’s “ridiculous” comment to Touchet. When he reassured Touchet, Shapiro—an honorable guy—no doubt thought the producer wasn’t going anywhere. Some inside NBC say Shapiro believed that Touchet simply needed some support at Today, and was searching for someone for the post that Griffin eventually landed; Shapiro wasn’t planning to can Touchet outright.

The decision to jettison Touchet and replace him with Bell was made by Zucker and appears to have been presented to Shapiro as virtually a fait accompli. Though candidly admitting last week that the shrinking lead over GMA prompted the switch, Zucker was perhaps a tad disingenuous when he told The New York Times that Today stars Katie Couric and Matt Lauer had “nothing to do” with Touchet’s ouster.

When Touchet’s predecessor, Jonathan Wald, was pushed out, Couric took the rap in the press for singlehandedly engineering his dismissal. The reports might not have been accurate, and she may not have fired the gun this time either, but it’s not as if she was going to pull it from Zucker’s hand. With a little over a year to go on her current contract, Couric has been courted by CBS Chairman and Viacom Co-COO Les Moonves, even as Zucker tries to persuade her to extend the current deal for at least another three years. The personnel changes at Today last week were a way Zucker could send his star a message: Her interests are a top priority.

The Today episode is a reminder that the folks really at the helm at Big Three news operations aren’t the news division presidents but the network chiefs. At CBS, Moonves makes the big talent and programming decisions, not CBS News President Andrew Heyward. Note how Moonves has been the front-and-center guy talking about the post-Dan Rather CBS Evening News.

Similarly, Anne Sweeney, president of the ABC Disney Television Group, is the network’s ultimate news gatekeeper, not ABC News President David Westin. News execs at ABC were heartened last week by Sweeney’s comments in The New York Times that seemed to ensure the future of Nightline. In a follow-up statement, Sue Binford, senior vice president for ABC corporate communications, said, “As news and other executives have been saying for months, the network has made it clear to Dave Westin that ABC News has a clear first shot at 11:35 to develop the next generation of Nightline.” He gets the first shot, in other words, but Sweeney has wiggle room if she wants it. Nightline might live on as a hard-news show; it might ultimately morph into some news lite dross. Who knows? Sweeney supports the news division, but she’ll go with what works. What went down at NBC and Today was all part of that same infotainment management mojo.

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