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As network news leadership shuffles, doubts about future loom

Recent executive shakeups underscore the financial challenges of some of the country's biggest TV news operations, which are still working out how to transition to streaming.
ABC's "Good Morning America" - 2019
Michael Strahan, Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos present ABC's "Good Morning America" in New York, February, 2019. Paula Lobo / Walt Disney Television via Getty file

Two of the biggest players in broadcast news found themselves facing rocky transitions last week. Both ABC News and CBS News announced new leaders, and the executive producer of ABC's "Good Morning America" abruptly left the network.

The shake-ups, a source of confusion and anxiety for employees at both networks, each have different causes and different levels of palace intrigue. But they betray a larger trend: In the era of streaming and social media, when the audience for broadcast news is in sharp decline and the companies are navigating a tricky transition to digital, the entire industry faces an unsettled future.

ABC News, which competes with NBC News for primacy in broadcast, hired a second-in-command at the distant third-place network, CBS News, which in turn announced a new co-leadership structure because, three sources at that network said, its current chief no longer wanted the job.

Looming over all this confusion is a question: What exactly are these new leaders inheriting?

"Fifteen years ago in television journalism, president of the network or even executive producer was the highest calling you could imagine," one longtime television news executive said. "The game we've been playing is over."

NBC News spoke with more than a dozen current and former news executives, executive producers and other senior-level insiders who detailed similar concerns about the state of the major broadcast news operations, particularly the future of the lucrative morning shows and the difficult transition to streaming.

Representatives for NBC News, ABC News and CBS News all declined to comment.

Financially, broadcast news is in an existential dilemma. Morning shows, the profit centers for each network news division, are losing hundreds of thousands of viewers every year. Viewership among 25- to 54-year-olds, the demographic group advertisers covet, is roughly half what it was a decade ago, according to data from Nielsen, the media tracking company. 

"There is no NBC News without 'TODAY,'" one veteran television news executive said. "There is no ABC News without 'GMA.'" 

News networks have survived this decline by charging advertisers more money to reach fewer viewers, a standard strategy across television and a life raft for media companies while they build out their streaming networks. But at some point, several television executives acknowledged, the big advertisers will likely decide it's not worth it to pay higher and higher costs to reach fewer and fewer viewers.

This presents a difficult challenge for news divisions. While the audiences for an entertainment show like NBC's "This Is Us" or CBS' "The Big Bang Theory" may be just as big on their streaming services, some media executives questioned whether there would be similar interest in streaming morning shows or evening newscasts. NBC News has sought to extend "TODAY" to streaming with its 24-hour "TODAY All Day," and CBS' streaming channel CBSN features "CBS This Morning" content as well. "Good Morning America" episodes are available on Hulu.

But even if brands like "TODAY" and "GMA" start producing videos people can watch on demand or draw some viewers to streaming services, it’s not clear the advertising dollars will follow. 

The decline of a morning show spells trouble for an entire news division, because the morning shows account for the majority of revenue brought in by the broadcast news shows. An internal sales presentation prepared for NBCUniversal News Group Chairman Cesar Conde last year and seen by NBC News indicates the "TODAY" show brought in $408 million in advertising revenue in 2019, compared to "Nightly News" with $146 million and "Meet the Press" with $26 million, according to the document. ABC’s “Good Morning America" brings in $350 million to $375 million in advertising revenue per year and accounts for most of the network’s broadcast news revenue, sources at ABC said.

NBC News may be on stronger footing than its competitors because it is part of an NBCUniversal News Group that also includes cable assets MSNBC and CNBC. (NBCUniversal is the parent company of NBC News.) A spokesperson for NBC News declined to comment on the sales presentation.

The question now for broadcast news divisions is how to transition to digital and claw back an audience it is already losing on television — and it is by no means guaranteed that every news group will survive. One prominent media executive not aligned with any of the networks questioned whether CBS, in a distant third place in morning and evenings, was already too far gone.

The job of running a broadcast news division has also become more complicated and perhaps less fun. (Susan Zirinsky, the outgoing chief of CBS News, famously disliked the corporate bureaucracy that came with the job.) Past news presidents who were given a mandate to win ratings and beat the competition at all costs would be on unfamiliar ground with the new emphasis that’s been put on fostering a positive and healthy workplace culture. 

Disney put an especially heavy emphasis on this when looking for ABC News’ next leader. NBC News obtained a seven-page document from talent recruiters sent to candidates for the position that emphasized three times the importance of fostering an open and inclusive workplace. There was less emphasis on keeping ABC News competitive.

"Building culture in broadcast TV — which is under constant siege, with declining ratings and relevance — is a thankless task," one veteran media executive said. "In all of the oral histories of the Titanic, no one ever asked, 'How was culture on the third and fourth decks?'"

Culture aside, the first task of the new ABC News president, Kimberly Godwin, will be one that is crucial to the network’s success. The day after Disney announced her hire, it announced that Michael Corn, the executive producer of "Good Morning America" for seven years, was no longer with the network. The reasons for his departure are unknown. Corn did not respond to a request for comment.

The shake-up leaves Godwin in charge of the most consequential decision a broadcast news leader can make — how to rejuvenate a morning show — at a time when the very future of the business is in question.

CORRECTION (April 20, 2021, 3:28 p.m. ET): A photo caption in a previous version of this article misspelled the last name of a "GMA" anchor. He is George Stephanopoulos, not Stephanopolos.