LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - As Comcast awaited approval to acquire NBCUniversal, producer Peter Chernin interviewed CEO Brian Roberts at the 2010 Cable Show. Chernin wondered whether Roberts was truly ready for the headaches associated with owning NBC, particularly the controversy potentially triggered by the news division and MSNBC.
"The single most awesome asset that comes from this deal is NBC News," Roberts said, adding, "NBC News will help define Comcast."
But it hasn't worked out that way -- or rather, Roberts should certainly hope not. Instead, NBC News has experienced various pratfalls, having less to do with ratings (although in some key instances those have suffered) than with public relations, particularly in its botched handling of personnel changes at "Today" and "Meet the Press" leading to the painfully slow-motion, rumor-dogged departures of Ann Curry and more recently David Gregory.
Even taking it as a given that Gregory and Curry needed to be replaced, the process of shedding them exhibited all the finesse of a Civil War-era amputation. And while NBC can be forgiven for seeking to jump-start these storied franchises, in both cases, the network appeared not so much to be following a cohesive plan as to be reacting to the example set by "Good Morning America," which seemed to catch NBC off guard in how unabashedly the ABC morning show stooped to conquer.
Nobody needs to hold any bake sales for the high-profile anchors, but "NBC Nightly News' " well-orchestrated baton pass from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams -- a near-textbook transition -- looks awfully distant in the rear-view mirror.
As for MSNBC, the cable network too often appears rudderless, or at least improvising journalistic standards as it goes along. Once again, that has involved the inherent conflict-of-interest in allowing activist Al Sharpton to become a participant in stories he covers, such as the civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., although the network's ill-advised choices don't end there.
Indeed, some observers suggest Sharpton has been allowed to continue in his awkward dual role primarily because MSNBC hasn't developed talent to replace him, either via smart hires or in grooming personalities, as former anchor Keith Olbermann did in helping launch the careers of primetime hosts Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes.
MSNBC hasn't altered the progressive profile Olbermann set in motion since he left in 2011, but management has made a number of questionable moves, such as thrusting 26-year-old Ronan Farrow into a daytime hosting role, in what felt like an act of demographic- and celebrity-pandering.
In similar fashion, MSNBC's "The Cycle" this month featured co-host Abby Huntsman interviewing her father, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, calling him "Dad" throughout the segment. If the stunt was supposed to be cute, it merely created an impression that nobody in authority at the network understands the meaning of the word "recuse."
The bottom line is that if NBC News is really a top priority for Comcast -- not just for its ratings and revenue, but for its integrity and traditions -- then the network has a funny way of showing it. And while the Comcast-NBCU deal and Comcast's mega-merger plans with Time Warner Cable aren't directly related, the foibles of the current tie-up are worth considering as Comcast marches down the aisle toward its latest corporate nuptials. Time Warner Cable, after all, is a company beset by its own high-profile missteps, starting with overpricing its dedicated Dodgers regional sports network, which has left most of Los Angeles unable to watch the team's division-leading exploits, eliciting grumbles from fans and civic officials alike.
Overall, NBCUniversal has made formidable strides -- and demonstrated an admirable willingness to take risks by investing in everything from theme-park expansion to future Olympics -- since the Peacock alit under Comcast's wing. Despite Roberts' stated commitment, though, being defined by NBC's news, right now, sounds like bad news indeed.