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TV Guise

Andy Lack's new job is to revive NBC, while his buddy Walter Isaacson gets to rescue CNN. But can a couple of old-school content guys really save television?

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I'm in a conference room on the 52nd floor of the NBC building in Rockefeller Center to talk to Andy Lack, who has recently risen from head of the news division to president of the network, about the future of NBC. But right away we start to talk about Walter Isaacson, who a few days ago had been promoted from editorial director of Time Inc. to CEO of CNN.

"It makes perfect sense!" Andy says in a fill-the-room voice. He has big, shooting eyebrows. He's wearing a dark blue shirt with tie askew, dark slacks, and slightly jarring beige shoes. He's an endearing show-off, you can tell ("Andy's a blast," says a friend of his I know).

"Putting Walter in is a brilliant move -- they desperately need Walter!" His glee doesn't so much derive from putting down a competitor -- although, no doubt, he's not unhappy that CNN has falling ratings and plummeting morale -- but, I think, from the fact of cohorts rising together to take over the world.

Andy and Walter are longtime buds, two generals in the news business, and neighbors in Bronxville (David Westin, the head of ABC News, lives there, too). "Walter's wife, Cathy, is the godmother to my second son," Andy says in his embracing voice.

We talk about whether Walter will be moving to Atlanta. Although Walter will always tell you he's from New Orleans -- and at a moment's notice will talk the southern talk and turn on some serious out-of-town charm -- it is also hard to imagine anyone being more of the New York media world than Walter (although Andy himself, who also knows everyone who is anyone, comes close).

I can't help thinking that Andy and Walter have both made a sort of devil's bargain. They'll use their Serious News Guy reps to front for the fact that they're running dumb-it-down businesses.

The idea of Walter's running CNN clearly amuses Andy -- possibly because such an old-school print guy is coming over to television. But I'm sure it's also because media careerists are always amused by Walter's career moves. They just seem so nonrandom: rising, over 23 years, to the penultimate spot at Time Inc.; writing great biographies in his spare time (his bio of Benjamin Franklin, whom Walter has recently been comparing to his current bosses, Gerry Levin and Steve Case, is on hold); playing media chess twenty moves ahead of everyone else. It must be smart if Walter's doing it.

Which Andy may take some comfort from, because it's hard to think of two guys less formally prepared to do what they're about to be doing.

News guys, no matter how close they come to power, don't usually get the power themselves. They don't run nations or corporations -- but watch, warily or admiringly, the people who do. In a logical world, there would be a GE 'droid running NBC and a Pittman clone managing AOL Time Warner's CNN.

Of course, that was before the media world changed and news and information "became so vital to our portfolio," as Andy describes NBC's collection of programming and cable channels.

News, or nonfiction programming, which had once been the loss leader of television, is now the most valuable currency of the current television age -- if only because it's cheaper than sitcoms and hour dramas to produce.

So having news credentials may be better than having gone to business school.

At the same time, neither Andy nor Walter is just a news guy. I don't think that just any news guys could have gotten these jobs. It's not like Murrow, were he 50 and living in Bronxville, would have gotten the job. Andy and Walter are new news guys. Soft news. News you can use. News that tells a story. They're news-product guys -- they can match the news to the market.

Under Andy, Dateline, with its "storytelling" mix of consumer exposés and real-life crime dramas and survivor sob stories, became the mainstay of the NBC schedule. It's news, but in the largest, broadest, most entertaining sense. Time, which Walter edited for five years until stepping up to be the Time Inc. editorial director six months ago, went from being a why-is-this-thing-still-around news magazine to a general-interest health-religion-entertainment-human-interest packaging machine -- from Time's many Columbine issues to its famous too-much-homework cover.

It's packaging skills that may be the all-important credential.

There are even NBC people who say that what really convinced GE's CEO-elect, Jeff Immelt, that Andy Lack was the man for the job had nothing to do with news -- they clicked because way back in Andy's career, before he got into news, he was at Benton & Bowles (with, he tells me, Law & Order's Dick Wolf), working on the "Please Don't Squeeze the Charmin" Mr. Whipple account.

"It's all about unlocking value," Andy says, talking non-news talk.

Of course, it's possible that Andy and Walter are being allowed to run networks because the guys above them -- Jeff Immelt and Bob Wright at GE, and Jerry Levin, Bob Pittman, and Jamie Kellner at AOL Time Warner -- don't think that running a network is as important as it used to be.


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