The saga of past ESPN producer and potential future Fox Sports executive Jamie Horowitz at NBC is one of the most unusual ones in recent memory, with NBC pulling significant strings to lure Horowitz in from ESPN/ABC to oversee Today, but then firing him three months into his tenure and before he even officially started. Vanity Fair‘s Bryan Burrough has written a detailed examination of NBC News in the wake of the Brian Williams scandal, and that piece has some interesting thoughts on what exactly happened with Horowitz. It leads to the question of if his problems there were of his own making, or if he was brought into an untenable situation. First, here’s the discussion of how he wound up at NBC:
By then [NBC News head Deborah] Turness had turned her focus back to Today. She and [NBCUniversal News Group chair Pat] Fili, wanting some fresh eyes, decided to bring in an outsider to devise a turnaround strategy, a brash 38-year-old ESPN producer named Jamie Horowitz. Last May, in an internal memo announcing his hiring, Turness termed Horowitz “a visionary leader,” a bit of a stretch for a young executive known mostly for shepherding two ESPN shows: Keith Olbermann’s ESPN2 program and a football show hosted by Colin Cowherd. Some felt Horowitz’s hiring was a tacit admission that Turness wasn’t up to the task of fixing Today herself. “Come on!” barks one critic. “Anybody with a triple-digit I.Q. who interviews somebody to come in as president of NBC News you ask, ‘What are you going to do with the 800-pound gorilla? With Today?’ And Deborah’s answer was ‘You hire Jamie Horowitz!’ It was almost like it was Deborah’s cry for help. Like if you’re overwhelmed and you don’t have a lot of confidence or vision, you bring in other people: ‘Help me, I’m drowning.’ ”
After a protracted negotiation to break his contract at ESPN—Pat Fili got Bob Iger (Disney owns ESPN) to intervene on NBC’s behalf—Horowitz wasn’t allowed to formally start at NBC until December, though he could begin working off the premises in September.
There are two sharply different versions of Horowitz’s brief tenure as an executive vice president of NBC News: One offering considerable detail is put forth by NBC partisans; this version paints Horowitz as a cocky, trash-talking loose cannon who avidly leaked to the press. An alternative version suggests that Horowitz was torpedoed by Matt Lauer and his allies at Today, who feared the changes he sought. The truth appears to contain elements of both versions.
There are a couple of notable tidbits there. First, the criticism of bringing Horowitz in to address Today shows just how difficult that situation was. Also, current Disney chairman and CEO Iger (described earlier in that piece as a mentor and former boss to Fili) personally intervened to get Horowitz out of his ESPN contract. That illustrates how this wasn’t just a move of a low-level talent, but someone suits at both companies were extremely interested in. In fact, for a piece that’s so critical of factual errors and misrememberings at NBC, Burrough’s description of Horowitz is remarkably poor; yes, he worked on Olbermann and Colin’s Football Show, but both of those are relatively new. What’s far more interesting about Horowitz’s ESPN career is his long-running involvement with First Take and his role in the creation of the #EmbraceDebate ideology. ESPN’s shift in that direction has been highly controversial from a journalism standpoint, but it’s been very successful on the business front, to such a degree that other networks have tried to follow suit. We can’t get inside NBC executives’ heads, but it seems likely that Horowitz’s long-established success with First Take played a significant role in his hire. It’s also likely part of why ESPN was reluctant to let him go.
Burrough goes on to investigate those theories of why Horowitz didn’t last long at NBC, and the discussion of leaks and office politics is interesting. The allegation that he threw Turness under the bus in an early conversation with Williams is a serious one, and it explains the mistrust generated between him and his bosses. That mistrust may have been enhanced by leaks; there’s no conclusive proof presented that Horowitz leaked anything, but there are strong suggestions that he did, and that may be something that future employers will have to consider. According to Burrough, it was likely a combination of a particular suspected leak, his bosses’ lack of trust in him, and perhaps Lauer’s personal involvement that got Horowitz fired:
Turness coolly agreed to take his views under advisement. The very next day the New York Post carried a blind item suggesting Turness was about to be fired. Among the candidates to replace her, it said, was Jamie Horowitz.
Turness had had enough. That Friday morning she summoned Horowitz to her office. “I don’t trust you,” she told him. “Nothing that you’ve proposed is ever going to happen if I don’t trust you.” When Horowitz asked what he could do, Turness replied, “That’s up to you.” When Turness relayed news of the meeting to Fili, Fili scheduled her own meeting with Horowitz for Monday. But that meeting never happened. It was then, Horowitz’s defenders argue, that Matt Lauer intervened to get Horowitz fired. “That weekend is when Matt went to Pat and Steve Burke and made clear he was not going to let [any of the proposed changes] happen,” says one. “He said he wanted to protect the people that were there. He said, in essence, ‘This guy has to be stopped.’ And Burke and Pat buckled. They gave in to Matt and agreed to fire Jamie.”
NBC loyalists fiercely deny this. “Completely untrue, 100 percent untrue,” responds one. “I understand the theory, but frankly I reject it. Matt did not go to Steve. Ever. Jamie was fired because it was an intolerable situation.” In fact, another NBC loyalist confirms that Lauer had spoken to Burke, weeks earlier, during one of their regular lunches. Horowitz had run many of his proposed changes by Lauer, and Lauer told Burke he had “deep concerns.” “Jamie ran into Matt Lauer—it’s as simple as that,” says one longtime NBC observer. “Don’t believe anything else.”
Whatever happened that weekend, the final blow landed on Monday morning, when a reporter for Us Weekly called for comment on a report that Horowitz wanted to fire Savannah Guthrie. Turness was apoplectic. “We have to fire him—today,” Turness told Fili, who agreed. Turness called him in, fired him, then was obliged to issue an embarrassing press release denying all the rumors of imminent change at Today. The upshot of the whole episode was that whatever changes she wanted to make she now couldn’t.
The Horowitz incident was a very public embarrassment, but because no one involved seemed eager to discuss it, it soon disappeared from the headlines.
On one level, this piece may be problematic for Horowitz and his future career in sports. He doesn’t come off all that well here, and the accusations of leaks and undermining his bosses are particularly troubling. On the other hand, though, Burrough’s piece shows that NBC had plenty of issues beyond him, and that the situation he was put into (brought in to make drastic changes to a show with powerful people like Lauer who resisted change) was anything but an easy one. How much of the Today mess can be attributed to Horowitz, and how much is others’ fault, is still a matter for debate, with this piece only ultimately providing some ammunition for both sides. We’ll see if Horowitz actually winds up at Fox (Sports Business Daily seems bullish on those chances) and what he does there. The NBC situation doesn’t reflect well on anyone involved, though, including him.