Help Wanted

With both entertainment and news programs in ratings and advertising slumps, NBC has made overtures to at least three top media players in recent weeks, according to executives close to the recruitment efforts. Among those contacted were Susan Lyne, CEO of Martha Stewart Omnimedia; Patricia Fili-Krushel, a top Time Warner executive, and Mark Shapiro, ESPN's wunderkind programmer. The outcome of the talks is unclear, and they may or may not be ongoing. Fili-Krushel, who is known to have discussed NBC's overture with Time Warner colleagues, declined to comment. Lyne, whose office said she is traveling through the weekend, did not return calls seeking comment. An ESPN spokesperson said Shapiro could not be reached for comment. NBC declined to comment.

Bob Wright, chairman and CEO of NBC Universal, a unit of General Electric, has been personally involved in some of the recruitment efforts, the sources said. They described the overtures as directly linked to a yet-to-be-announced plan to restructure NBC's cable-news efforts and an effort to rethink the company's entire approach to the news business.

Specifically, these sources said, NBC has been exploring ways to better integrate and coordinate coverage between its CNBC business-news network and its 24-hour general-news network, MSNBC, a joint venture of NBC and Microsoft. (NEWSWEEK and have a strategic partnership with NBC, MSNBC and with the interactive operation NBC operates with Microsoft, Wright, who also is a GE vice chairman, wants a candidate who can serve as news czar, with overall responsibility for all of the news operations, including the flagship NBC broadcast-news operations, these sources said.

The search, meanwhile, also raises questions about the future role of Jeff Zucker, the company's top entertainment-television executive. As president of NBC Universal Television Group, Zucker is responsible for all entertainment programming across the spectrum of broadcast and cable networks, with the exception of sports. In 2005, NBC's entertainment ratings dipped 17 percent, putting the network in fourth place behind FOX, ABC and CBS. "We are going to phase into some entertainment issues at NBC Universal," Jeff Immelt, GE's chairman and CEO, told Wall Street analysts in July. "We have got to do a better job on the programming front. That's what we're all working on."

The comments would appear to place Zucker on the hot seat. The executive soared to prominence as the longtime executive producer of "Today" before he was installed as the entertainment boss at the NBC network and later for all of NBC Universal's television operations. But conventional wisdom says that his longtime and enormous contribution to NBC makes it highly unlikely that his job would be threatened by an inevitable downturn in a notoriously hit-driven and cyclical television business. According to one source, in fact, Zucker has also been involved in some of the recruitment efforts.

Yet speculation about Zucker's fate inevitably could become more heated with word of the overture to Lyne, who took the top job at Martha Stewart Omnimedia after Stewart was imprisoned last year. She would only be interested in one of the company's most senior positions--if she found the overture at all enticing in the first place. (Currently, Lyne is working closely with NBC as the network prepares for the prime-time launch this fall of "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart." NBC is also distributing a new daytime syndicated series placing Stewart before a live audience, with segments on decorating, cooking and other Stewart lifestyle topics.)

It's not difficult to understand why Wright would be anxious to land Lyne. The Martha Stewart chief, who founded Premiere magazine and once edited the Village Voice, is perhaps the single most important factor in the resurgence of NBC's rival, ABC. Lyne was the champion of the series "Desperate Housewives" at ABC Entertainment. She also supported her executive partner, Lloyd Braun, chairman of ABC Entertainment, who championed the ratings-rich show "Lost." (Before either series began airing last fall, however, Disney's beleaguered top brass fired Braun and Lyne.)

The other two candidates, Shapiro and Fili-Krushel, were being pursued for a slot closer to the job currently held by NBC News president Neil Shapiro, who has been reported to be planning to leave the network in the next several weeks or months. His pending departure comes in the wake of a dramatic decline in ratings for "Today," which remains television's most profitable show and No. 1 in the morning-news race. But since the beginning of the decade, its lead of about 2 million viewers over archrival "Good Morning America" on ABC has plunged to as few as 45,000 in recent months.

Meanwhile, the audience for network news programming has been declining, aging and fragmenting for years. In addition, the traditional network evening newscasts are in the midst of a transition, with a generational change in anchors. Recently, Brian Williams succeeded Tom Brokaw at "NBC Nightly News," CBS is searching for a replacement for Dan Rather and ABC's Peter Jennings is battling lung cancer.

On the cable side, MSNBC has been badly underperforming rivals Fox and CNN and has sometimes lagged even CNN Headline News. In addition, NBC is widely rumored to be renegotiating the joint ownership of MSNBC's cable operations with Microsoft, though Wright has publicly dismissed such reports. At CNBC, profits are enormous, fueled by advertisers' efforts to reach a tiny, but affluent viewership. But CNBC could face stiff competition if Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. owns the No. 1 Fox News network, launches a business network. He has pledged to do so if he can secure distribution from cable operators.

Sources close to the situation say the upheaval in the news business is precisely why Wright is seeking a candidate lacking extensive direct experience in news to fill the news-czar post. And that's why ESPN's Shapiro and Time Warner's Fili-Krushel were among his top choices. Shapiro, 35, vaulted to the top of ESPN's programming ladder, beginning in 1993 as a production assistant. A brash risk-taker, he is widely credited with ESPN's transformation from a sports outlet into an entertainment platform for series and original movies. "Throw it out there, take a chance," he told the trade publication Broadcasting and Cable last week in describing his style. "If we fail, we fail." His daring appeals to ESPN's parent, Disney, which expanded his job to summer include programming over sports at ABC, another Disney unit.

At Time Warner, Fili-Krushel, 51, is effectively the chief administrative officer. But her background is rich in television, including her historic 18-month stint as the first woman to run a broadcast network, ABC.

The outcome of the talks between NBC and the media executives is unclear and they may or may not be ongoing. Either way, it looks as if there might be a hit reality show in all of this for NBC: "America's Next Top TV Exec Search!"