By Liana B. Baker and Peter Lauria
(Reuters) - NBC News President Steve Capus will be leaving the network in the coming weeks after struggles at the unit, including lower ratings for its flagship morning TV show, "Today."
No replacement has been named for Capus, president of NBC News since 2005, according to a company memo obtained by Reuters. In a statement, Capus said it was "now time to head in a new direction."
Three sources close to NBC said his departure had been rumored around the halls after parent Comcast Corp reorganized the news division in July, bringing in Patricia Fili-Krushel to head the news unit's business operations. After that change, these sources said, Capus' departure became a matter of when, not if.
Prior to Comcast's takeover, the three heads of NBC's news operations — Mark Hoffman at CNBC, Phil Griffin at MSNBC and Capus — all reported directly to Jeff Zucker, who was not only NBC's chief executive but also well-versed in hard news.
"There was a natural flow to the news division under Zucker. They all spoke the same language," said one of these sources. "No disrespect to Pat, but she's not viewed as a news person."
Indeed, both Capus and Zucker basically grew up with each other at NBC, spending about 20 years together at the network. Capus did not say what his next move would be. Zucker, the executive who promoted him seven years ago at NBC, is now the worldwide president of CNN, owned by Time Warner Inc.
The sources said it would not be a surprise if Capus eventually resurfaced in a new position under Zucker at CNN. Earlier this week, Mark Whitaker, the managing editor at CNN, announced his resignation to make room for Zucker to install his own team. Prior to his joining CNN, Whitaker worked at NBC News under both Capus and Zucker.
Fili-Krushel said in a memo to staff on Friday that until a replacement for Capus is found, NBC News will operate under an interim structure with various executives reporting to her. She will start the search for a successor in coming weeks, with Capus helping with the transition.
Two other sources said that the recent view internally has been that Antoine Sanfuentes, an executive who oversees NBC News' Washington bureau and the Sunday political talk program "Meet the Press," was being groomed to replace Capus. Fili-Krushel said in her memo that Sanfuentes will report to her and serve as interim managing editor responsible for editorial decision-making.
The first three sources said they had expected Capus to announce his departure at the end of last year to coincide with the announcement that Jim Bell was leaving as executive producer of the "Today" show to assume the newly created role of full-time executive producer of the Olympics.
Ultimately, Capus decided to trigger his departure by exercising an "out" clause built into his most recent contract, according to one of the first three sources.
Capus commanded the loyalty of NBC News staff, particularly the on-air talent and producers, all of the five sources agreed. Some of the major news events he worked on included the September 11 attacks, the discovery of anthrax in the NBC newsroom, the death of Britain's Princess Diana and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His resignation came as an unexpected blow to NBC News staff, despite the apparent grooming of Sanfuentes.
Savannah Guthrie, installed by Capus as "Today" show host after the departure of Ann Curry, tweeted on Friday that Capus was "a great leader and tireless advocate for NBC News" who will be missed.
NBC News made deep job cuts in 2006 after wider layoffs at the parent company. Rivals ABC News and CBS News have also made hundreds of layoffs in the past few years.
Capus said in his memo that he "tried to shield journalists from the tough economic pressures hoping that would give each of you the running room to focus solely on a commitment to outstanding journalism."
NBC News has been the one part of the network's news operations to show slippage in the last year. CNBC is far and away the leading business news network, as measured in ratings. MSNBC has not only surpassed CNN to become a strong No. 2 among general cable news networks, but has also closed the gap with long-time leader Fox News, owned by News Corp.
"Pat Fili-Krushel has a strong vision of the integration that is required to make the full array of NBC programming fire on all cylinders in unison. She also understands the need to complement both the owned station and Comcast cable group goals to leverage all to best advantage," said Magid & Associates consultant Steve Ridge.
NBC News has ranked as the leader among network news broadcasts in both the morning and evening for much of Capus' eight-year run as president. Two of the first three sources said he deserves credit for maintaining the "Today" show as the dominant morning news program, "NBC Nightly News" as the leading evening news broadcast, and "Meet the Press" as the marquee Sunday news program. But over the last year, Capus' fiefdom has taken a few hits, most notably at the "Today" show.
NBC News, for example, was criticized for ousting Ann Curry as "Today" co-host after only one year.
The "Today" show has been in a back-and-forth ratings war with ABC's "Good Morning America" ever since ABC snapped NBC's 16-year unbeaten streak last year. "NBC Nightly News" is averaging 8.76 million total viewers, ahead of "ABC World News" and "CBS Evening News." It has seen less ratings success with the news magazine "Rock Center with Brian Williams," which debuted in 2011 and after being bounced around the schedule, will move to Friday nights on Feb 8.
NBC News also came under fire last spring when it decided to edit a call to police from George Zimmerman, the Florida man who shot unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. The editing made it appear that Zimmerman told police, without being prompted, that Martin was black when, in fact, the full tape revealed that the neighborhood watch captain did so only when responding to a question posed by a dispatcher.
NBC has since been sued for defamation by Zimmerman.
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Andrew Hay and Matthew Lewis)