TV Guise

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.

Networks at Andy and Walter’s level (as opposed to the more abstract strata of men who engineer massive distribution shifts) are just content producers – and content hasn’t been king in a while. NBC, after the departure of GE’s media-loving Jack Welch, and especially if the Winter Olympics are a success, may logically be sold to some Über-media company. And CNN, post-Ted Turner and post-Fox News, is just a cog, and an annoying one at that, in the AOL Time Warner machine.

I get tons of e-mail from disaffected people at dysfunctional media companies – nobody likes to vent more to the media than the media. The tone of my mail from CNN is rage that Time Warner fucked the company up, and now it’s all coming apart. The tone from NBC is more existential: What will become of us? (Though one correspondent did point out that a bad day at NBC is still better than a good day at ABC.)

It could even be that some smart management person realized you don’t want professional television guys (sales, finance, and affiliate guys) to be running the television business now, because whatever happens is bound to be a disappointment for them – and you don’t want depressed executives bringing everybody else down. All numbers in the television business will get smaller – that’s the only certainty. The television business is a hardscrabble business. Which is why the content guys are getting a shot, because they don’t know that it’s all downhill. I’d even argue that television, with its ever-more-specialized topics, smaller and smaller audiences, more and more complex distribution routes, increasingly meager profits, and its ever-expanding dial of choices, is the new print – which, for television people, is possibly the worst news.

So what’s in it for Andy and Walter besides the job titles and the dough?

As news president, Andy was faced with the daily (and for a news guy, thrilling) task of deciding what was important in the world; as head of the network, he’ll be deciding if Weakest Link is on one night a week or two, and how Fear Factor can keep topping itself (there are millions of dollars in profit margin dependent on clever humiliations and gross-outs). As for Walter, I’ve heard him talk about television before, and judging from his I’m-trying-to-be-with-it tone, I really don’t think he watches television much.

Neither guy is necessarily a natural.

I’m tempted to think it’s hubris – that Andy and Walter have both overreached.

When I catch up with Walter on the phone, in Atlanta, I remind him of a conversation we had a few months ago where he’d said, with what I surmised was regret, that he would never run an AOL Time Warner division. (Even for Walter, skill sets don’t necessarily match ambitions.) “I guess I’d always thought the content guys worked for the business guys,” he said.

Then too, I can’t help thinking that they’ve 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. For whatever news talents they might have, they’re being employed now for their other talents – as semi-lowbrow packaging whizzes.

Getting on their bellies with Fox may be, in the end, what they’ve both been hired to do (something Tom Johnson, Walter’s predecessor at CNN, seemed to have no heart, or talent, for doing).

But I also suspect that I’m not seeing the full breadth of the career moves here. That I’m stuck in an old idea of form and function. After all, so many of the careers that we planned on and are now stuck in have eroded or don’t quite exist anymore (which is the real point of these e-mails from the disaffected that I get all the time). Even Walter, on track to get the job he’d prepared for all his career, the Time Inc. editor-in-chief job, the Henry Grunwald job, understood, I think, that this job doesn’t exist any longer – you can’t be the editor-in-chief of 64 magazines; you can’t even read 64 magazines.

Andy and Walter, I think, have realized that they aren’t really journalists anymore. They’ve mutated into a different kind of professional. Media-ists, I’ll call them.

Being a media-ist has to do with having some finer understanding of the almost-impossible-to-understand function of a massive media company. In other words, Walter and Andy may get it, while the rest of us mostly don’t. It’s alliances, it’s leverage, it’s transactions, it’s franchises, it’s platforms and what all.

At NBC, for instance, there has been an important, and telling, change in vocabulary. The news division, if you’re in the know, is called a nonfiction-production unit (sometimes a “multi-platform nonfiction-production unit” feeding content to myriad outlets). The point being distribution and convergence and modularity and interactivity, rather than just news. (“In a world where outlets are multiplying, we are multiplying faster,” says Walter, finding the optimistic note.)

I sense in both Andy and Walter an almost childlike desire, as well as an overachiever’s drive, to expand their media-ist skills. Andy seems definitely interested in the “M&A stuff” – 30 percent of his time, he guesses, will be devoted to buying and selling and building the portfolio. Walter, too, says his M&A team is ready to go (you’ve got to anticipate AOL may be in the market to buy NBC – and then there’d be an interesting Walter-Andy shoot-out).

So it isn’t about journalism. In fact, it may not even really be about television. The Andy and Walter show is broader, vaster, more complex – demanding a whole new level of ambition, canniness, charm, and survival skills.

There are going to be some intense pool parties in Bronxville.


TV Guise