NEW YORK (AP) — NBC News President Deborah Turness pushed correspondent Kevin Tibbles to go beyond the standard story when reporting this summer on Hannah Anderson, the California girl kidnapped and taken to the Idaho wilderness.
So Tibbles rented a horse. He met the men who had tipped authorities after spotting the girl and her kidnapper, and urged them to retrace their path through the rugged terrain to show what it looked and felt like to be there. It’s one example of how Turness, NBC News’ boss for two months, has tried to shake things up — encouraging staff to take a hands-on approach and shake off signs of staleness.
She took over a television news division that has dominated its field for years but lately shown signs of staleness. ABC’s "This Week" just scored a milestone victory over NBC’s "Meet the Press" on Sunday morning. While Brian Williams’ "Nightly News" still leads in the evening news ratings, things are tighter. The "Today" show’s tumble is well documented.
Alarmed at the direction, NBC chose an outsider to give the division a fresh look. Turness is more than an outsider to the company, she’s new to the country. She’s the former editor for ITV News, Britain’s top commercial news producer (she spent four years in the company’s Washington bureau in the 1990s).
She’s clearly been energetic and full of ideas, said "Today" anchor Matt Lauer.
"The new direction of the show is something that has me more invigorated than I have been in a long time," Lauer said.
"Today" debuted a high-tech set on Sept. 16. Speaking a few days before, Turness made it clear the changes were more than cosmetic: "Today" is more aggressively seeking newsmaker interviews and is minimizing lurid crime stories and some of the fluff in favor of more uplifting stories. Last week Savannah Guthrie visited the home of United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power for an interview, and the show featured a woman who survived the Kenyan mall massacre with her five children.
"Today" stationed Carson Daly in the studio’s new "Orange Room," where he monitors social media feedback and what stories are trending. With Daly and Willie Geist part of the team, "Today" regularly features two people considered potential successors to Lauer.
The morning show was one of the most lucrative on television during its glory years between 1995 and 2012. Turning things around is a top priority, and Turness frequently begins her day in the "Today" control room. "Today" has spent more than a year behind ABC’s "Good Morning America" in the ratings now, losing by nearly 800,000 viewers during the week of Sept. 23.
Except for a reception showing off the new set, Turness has kept a low public profile.
"My focus right now is on defining our brands, defining our content and working on a long-term strategy to best prepare NBC News for the future," she said. "While I’m truly grateful for the invitation, I feel it’s a bit too early to talk about any of this now."
One of her predecessors as NBC News president said that’s not a bad idea.
"What she needs to do is have a triumph somewhere," said Richard Wald, a Columbia University professor who was a news executive at both NBC and ABC. "It doesn’t matter where, but something valuable in terms of how she will face the future. Then she can begin talking. Until then, her best bet is to remain quiet."
People at NBC say Turness has been active with suggestions on how stories should be covered. For example, she encouraged reporter Miguel Almaguer when he was covering the Colorado flooding to step beyond a dispassionate tone and describe to viewers all that he was seeing. He hiked two hours with a digital camera to the cutoff community of Jamestown, Colo., that other reporters hadn’t gotten to yet.
In a memo to staff following coverage of the Western wildfires, Turness made it a point to say that "we were not content to film at a distance."
Having someone new come into an organization that already has veteran leadership can work both ways: It can invigorate or grate on people who have their own ways of doing things. NBC is in that shakeout process now. Turness hasn’t brought anyone with her from England to NBC News and hasn’t announced any major personnel moves.
"What they’ve been doing is clearly not working very well," said Beth Knobel, a Fordham University journalism professor who used to work at CBS News. "The sooner they figure out why, the sooner they can make the changes they need to turn things around."
"Meet the Press" is facing new competitive challenges. For the three months that ended with September, "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos beat NBC in both viewers and the 25-to-54-year-old age demographic that is key for ad sales in news programs — the first time that had happened in a quarter-year in 16 years, the Nielsen company said.
Before Turness arrived, NBC had replaced Betsy Fischer Martin, the long-time executive who ran the show, with Rob Yarin. Host David Gregory had the difficult job of replacing the popular Tim Russert, and it will be up to Turness to decide if that’s the right choice moving forward.
It’s been a difficult time for Williams, NBC’s lead anchor. NBC canceled the "Rock Center" newsmagazine that he had built after a year and a half on the air. Williams’ flagship "Nightly News" broadcast consistently wins in the ratings, but lost viewers in the past year while its two rivals gained them.
"Nightly News" is often caught in the middle between more thematically consistent shows at ABC and CBS, said Andrew Tyndall, a news consultant who studies the shows. The first half of "Nightly News," with the help of NBC’s strong reporting team, is frequently the best news summary on the air, Tyndall said. But the show can lose focus dramatically, and segments like "Making a Difference" are showing age.
"There’s not much need to watch the "Nightly News" after the first commercial," Tyndall said.
After starting at "Today," Turness often wraps up her day in the "Nightly News" control room.
Turness told staff members in a memo last Friday that a blueprint is being drawn to "enable us to deliver our brands most effectively on every major platform and device," and promised a town hall meeting to explain what this will mean.
"Sometimes going outside of the box turns out to be a winning strategy," Knobel said. "It’s not like they went out and got someone without a real news resume. This is a woman with serious news chops."
EDITOR’S NOTE — David Bauder can be reached at dbauder(at)ap.org or on Twitter(at)dbauder. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder .