November 28, 2020

Media Decoder Blog: ‘Today’ Producer Says Ouster of Ann Curry Was His Choice

Jim Bell, the executive producer of the Peter Kramer/NBC Jim Bell, the executive producer of the “Today” show.

8:24 p.m. | Updated

For the first time since removing Ann Curry from “Today” on NBC, the show’s executive producer on Wednesday defended that decision and sought to define the cause of its recent ratings setbacks, including the end of its 16-year weekly winning streak.

The producer, Jim Bell, said it “was absolutely my call” to replace Ms. Curry as co-anchor of the “Today” show in June after only a year on the job. While “Today” lost its longstanding lead over ABC’s “Good Morning America” in April, before Ms. Curry was ousted, its ratings have continued to erode since her departure.

“GMA” has won the last six weeks by margins ranging from 255,000 viewers to 883,000. It has also beaten “Today” by increasingly sizable margins in the category most important to advertisers, viewers ages 25 to 54. Last week, “GMA” won that group by 234,000 viewers, its biggest edge since it took over first place.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Bell offered numerous reasons that “GMA” had taken over as the regular leader in the morning news competition, including the sheer difficulty of maintaining dominance for so long. But he pointed in particular to what he called the difference in the show’s approaches, calling “Today” a “more serious show” and accusing “GMA” of “doing something else.”

Asked if he was suggesting “GMA” was now a tabloid-style program, Mr. Bell said, “That’s what I’m saying.”

ABC News on Wednesday responded by first pointing to the scoreboard. “I think the audience has spoken loud and clear about its preference in the morning,” said Julie Townsend, spokeswoman for ABC News.

ABC executives were also eager to note that such a description could be applied to a recent “Today” interview with Kris Jenner, mother of television’s most popular tabloid family, the Kardashians, about her breast implants. (That interview drew attention because it came when the other morning news programs were observing a moment of silence for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.)

Mr. Bell declined to call the original choice of Ms. Curry to succeed Meredith Vieira a mistake — “Ann had earned it,” he said — but he noted that Ms. Curry is now “in the role she is naturally suited for.” (Ms. Curry is now a special correspondent for the show, reporting, so far, mostly on international news; on Wednesday, she interviewed Libya’s interim president, Mohammed Magarief.)

Mr. Bell defended the appointment of Savannah Guthrie as the co-anchor beside Matt Lauer, calling her an important part of a “long view” plan for “Today” to regain the top ratings position. He specifically denied recent reports that the decision to remove Ms. Curry was a response to demands by Mr. Lauer, who recently renegotiated his contract.

“It was definitely not Matt’s call,” Mr. Bell said. “He is the host and does not have management responsibility. It was not his call. That was my call.”

Mr. Bell also expressed incredulity at recent reports that Mr. Lauer had been more vocal in his demands about the show, and had begun berating staff members. “These stories portraying Matt in a negative light are just preposterous,” Mr. Bell said. “Matt is the heart and soul of the broadcast. He has a heart of gold. This stuff about him has been very irresponsible and in a lot of cases flat-out wrong.”

Nor is “Today” facing any budget cuts to compensate for paying Mr. Lauer a reported $25 million a year, Mr. Bell said. “There is no plan for any cutbacks of layoffs for any of the staff,” he said. As for any reduction to Mr. Lauer’s salary, which was reported in The Daily News this week, “that could not be more wrong,” Mr. Bell said.

Asked what viewers could expect in the way of changes to affect this long-view approach, Mr. Bell said, “You just have to watch.”

Bill Carter writes about the television industry. Follow @wjcarter on Twitter.

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Fed Cuts Forecast for Economic Growth

The Fed predicted that the economy would expand between 2.5 percent and 2.9 percent in 2012, and between 3 percent and 3.5 percent in 2013. Both ranges are significantly lower than its last projections, made in June.

The Fed also predicted that the rate of unemployment would remain above 8.5 percent at the end of 2012, and above 7.8 percent at the end of 2013.

These forecasts, published four times a year, do not have a particularly good track record, but they do offer a window on the state of the policymakers’ minds. In a word: Glum.

Nevertheless, the Fed announced no new measures to stimulate growth Wednesday following a two-day a meeting of its policy-making committee, although it said that it remained concerned about the fragile health of the economy.

The Fed’s assessment was somewhat brighter than after its last meeting in September. Growth has “strengthened somewhat,” it said, thanks in part to stronger consumer spending. But the central bank continued to note “significant downside risks to the economic outlook, including strains in global financial markets.”

“The Committee continues to expect a moderate pace of economic growth over coming quarters and consequently anticipates that the unemployment rate will decline only gradually,” the Fed said in a statement released after the meeting, held every six weeks.

Charles Evans, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, dissented from the decision to do nothing. He argued for new measures to spur growth, echoing recent speeches in which he has criticized the Fed for caring more about inflation than unemployment. It was the first time since 2007 that a board member has dissented in favor of doing more.

The Fed had announced new efforts to spur the economy after each of the last two meetings of the Federal Open Market Committee.

In August, the Fed announced its intention to maintain short-term interest rates near zero for at least two more years, provided that inflation remained low — a decision left unchanged Wednesday. In September, it decided to further reduce long-term interest rates by shifting $400 billion from investments in short-term Treasury securities to longer-term Treasuries.

The 9-1 decision to pause now comes as the economy has shown signs of improving health in recent weeks, highlighted by the government’s estimate that growth rose to an annual pace of 2.5 percent in the third quarter. At the same time, the rate of inflation continues to decelerate more slowly than the Fed had expected, although markets continue to show little concern about it.

Fed officials also have doubts about their ability to increase the pace of growth, arguing that the lack of demand that is holding back the economy must be addressed by fiscal policy, meaning changes in taxation or government spending.

The combination of factors has postponed for now any movement toward a new round of stimulus, such as the proposal by the Fed Governor Daniel K. Tarullo last month that the Fed should consider buying large quantities of mortgage-backed securities to spur the housing market.

Fed officials have been careful to say that they remain willing to expand the central bank’s massive investment portfolio if economic conditions deteriorate. The statement repeated the Fed’s boilerplate promise that it “is prepared to employ its tools to promote a stronger economic recovery in a context of price stability.”

But this meeting was more of a test of what the Fed was willing to do when the economy is merely muddling. The answer is nothing new.

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Sharp Rift in a Strike at Verizon

The walkout is unusual at a time when unemployment is steep and organized labor has lost several big battles. But union leaders are angry that Verizon has budged little from its long list of demands during six weeks of negotiations. The unions have resisted Verizon’s requests for concessions on scores of issues because the company has been very profitable overall, with net income of $6.9 billion in the first six months of this year.

Verizon notes that most of its lines of business that deliver services over wires — the part of the company where the striking workers are employed — are in decline. The bulk of the company’s profits come from Verizon Wireless, a thriving, nonunion joint venture that is majority-owned by Verizon.

The strike is the largest in the nation since 74,000 General Motors workers walked out for two days in 2007, although some union leaders warned that the Verizon strike could last much longer because the two sides remain far apart.

Union leaders and workers said the walkout would inevitably cause significant delays in phone repairs and in installations of its fast-growing FiOS television and Internet services in customers’ homes. But Verizon officials said the company had tens of thousands of managers ready to step in to do the work normally done by the striking workers.

Verizon’s chief executive, Lowell C. McAdam, took a hard line on Sunday, arguing that workers in Verizon’s heavily unionized wireline businesses must agree to cost reductions. The wireline businesses, which include home and business telephone landlines as well as the FiOS services, have had declines in their customer base and profitability in the last decade, amid growing competition from mobile phones, cable companies and services like Skype and Vonage.

“It is clear that some of the existing contract provisions, negotiated initially when Verizon was under far less competitive pressure, are not in line with the economic realities of business today,” Mr. McAdam wrote in a letter on Sunday to the company’s management to discuss the strike. “As the U.S. automobile industry found out a few years ago, failure to make needed adjustments — when the need for change is obvious — can be catastrophic.”

The strike involves Verizon repair technicians, FiOS installers and call center workers from Massachusetts to Virginia. The walkout was called by the Communications Workers of America, which represents 35,000 of the strikers, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents 10,000.

Verizon wants the unionized workers to start contributing to their health care premiums, including $1,300 to $3,000 a year toward family coverage. The company has also called for freezing pension contributions for current employees, eliminating traditional pensions for future workers, limiting sick days to five a year, and eliminating all job security provisions.

“What they’re asking is hard for us to swallow because the company had profits of $22 billion over the last four years,” said Joe Iorio, a field technician based in Brooklyn, who has worked for Verizon for 15 years. “They’re crying poverty, they say they can’t afford to pay us. We’re just not going to stand for it anymore.”

Several union members said they were insulted that they were being asked to make deep concessions when Verizon’s top five executives received a total of $258 million in compensation, including stock options, over the last four years.

Verizon says its unionized employees are well paid, with many field technicians earning more than $90,000 a year, including overtime, with an additional $50,000 in benefits. Union officials say the field technicians and call center workers generally earn $60,000 to $77,000 a year before overtime and that benefits come to far less than $50,000 a year.

Michael Parker, executive vice president for a communications workers’ local in Annapolis, Md., said it was not easy to go on strike. “It’s a scary thing — we have 45,000 families that don’t have income coming in,” he said. “But we have to draw a line in the sand and defend what we believe in. We bargained for 50 years to gain these things, and we don’t want to give that back.”

Jeff Kagan, founder of a telecommunications research firm in Georgia, said the strike would undoubtedly slow construction of Verizon’s FiOS network and installation of FiOS in homes, but the short-term hit was worth it to Verizon.

“Their traditional local phone business is shrinking, while the other parts of the business are still growing,” he said. “It’s just a matter of restructuring so they can remain competitive. If they’re not competitive, Verizon will lose business and everyone loses — investors, customers and workers.”

Richard Hurd, a professor of labor relations at Cornell, said the two unions felt Verizon was trying to humble them by pushing them to adopt some of the same, less generous benefits that many of the company’s 135,000 nonunion workers have. “When you challenge unions like that, in a sense the company is pushing them into a strike,” he said.

In 2000, Verizon had another big strike, when 86,000 workers walked out for two weeks, causing widespread delays in repairs.

As recently as Wednesday, union and Verizon officials said they thought a strike was highly unlikely. But several union officials said on Sunday that they were stunned that Verizon still had 100 proposals for concessions on the negotiating table on Saturday, including ones to eliminate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and Veterans Day as holidays.

“No one expected six weeks of bargaining would produce absolutely no movement or compromise by the company,” said Robert Master, a communications workers spokesman. “This was an unprecedented situation.”

Verizon officials have repeatedly said that the two unions broke off talks on Sunday, but union officials said they have asked for new meetings, and Verizon has refused.

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Nokia Abandons 2011 Profit Goal

PARIS — Nokia, the cellphone giant battling to maintain its position in the face of competition from the iPhone and Android, said Tuesday that it was abandoning its 2011 profit targets after an unexpectedly poor second-quarter showing.

Shares in Nokia tumbled 17.5 percent, closing at €4.75 in Helsinki, after the company, which is based in Espoo, Finland, said “multiple factors are negatively impacting” sales, particularly lower selling prices and a reduced sales volume.

“The fact that things are getting worse is not a surprise,” said Stuart Jeffrey, an analyst at Nomura International in New York. “But the scale of the decline is surprising, coming just six weeks after they offered guidance.”

Facing an erosion in sales of phones using its Symbian technology, Nokia in February formed an alliance to use Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 operating system in new models. The company said Tuesday it had “increased confidence” that the first Nokia-Microsoft phone would be shipped in the fourth quarter.

Nokia said it was still investing in the Symbian lineup and intensifying its focus on point-of-sales marketing.

“The Symbian portfolio is in terminal decline,” Mr. Jeffrey said, “so the importance of the Windows phone is even greater now.”

He added that the weakness of the Symbian model appeared to vindicate the wisdom of the switch to the Microsoft platform, though it might have been better to at least add a few models using the Android operating system created by Google to benefit from its growth.

Nokia lowered its forecast for second-quarter sales in its devices and services business to “substantially below” the range of €6.1 billion to €6.6 billion, or $8.8 billion to $9.5 billion, it had previously forecast.

“Given the unexpected change in our outlook for the second quarter, Nokia believes it is no longer appropriate to provide annual targets for 2011,” it said.

A world-beater just a few years ago, Nokia remains the world’s largest cellphone maker by unit sales. But it has fallen behind Apple, maker of the iPhone, to the No.2 position when measured by revenue generated in the mobile phone market.

The phenomenal success of the iPhone and devices using Android, Google’s operating system, have left Nokia scrambling for market share in high-end smartphones, at the same time that Samsung of South Korea and its Chinese rivals have carved out major territory in the market for less expensive phones. In April, Nokia said it would cut costs nearly 20 percent over three years, a goal that is likely to result in thousands of layoffs.

“It’s very difficult to have a strong feeling about the outlook for Nokia in 2012 and beyond,” Mr. Jeffrey said, “because it’s all contingent on the success of the Windows phone.”

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Small Business: Trained for Battle, Now Operating a Small Business

He endured eight operations and spent six weeks in the hospital, but doctors were able to save his left leg. He learned to walk again on a limb with no sensory nerves. “That experience made me question everything,” said Mr. Bajema, a Marine corporal. “I later dropped out of business school because they were teaching me to get a job, but I knew I was here to do more than the daily grind. So I made the decision to start this business.”

In 2008, Mr. Bajema returned to Grand Rapids, Mich., his hometown, and began buying and renovating foreclosed properties with money he had saved while in the service. He was trying to regain the confidence he lost when he was injured in war. “I was sick of taking orders,” he said. “I was looking for a bigger purpose.”

While combat veterans face countless challenges in their transitions back to civilian life, Mr. Bajema and many of his peers credit the military with giving them the courage, discipline and determination to start businesses. They believe even harrowing experiences, if managed and overcome, can lend perspective and fearlessness in commerce and provoke that “healthy discontent with the status quo” that galvanizes entrepreneurs.

“The Marine Corps instilled a lot of things I’ve applied to the business world,” said Mark Llano, who fought in Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf and who, in 2003, founded Source One Distributors, a company based in Wellington, Fla., that simplifies the procurement of tactical equipment by government and law enforcement agencies. “When I saw an opportunity for this business, I hustled every day, working 80 hours a week. Because of my experience in the Marines, the hard work didn’t scare me.”

Like Mr. Llano, many veterans who become entrepreneurs cultivate as clients government agencies that give preference to businesses owned by veterans, especially if they are disabled. “If you have served in the military and you understand the government, you have knowledge other people don’t,” Mr. Llano said. “If you can apply that niche to business, it’s a home run.”

Veterans have other advantages as well. “If two people walk in the door with the same idea for a lemonade stand, the veteran will get more assistance than the civilian,” said James Mingey, a Vietnam veteran and entrepreneur who is president and chief executive of the Veterans Corporation, a nonprofit that fosters business opportunities for veterans.

Mr. Mingey and others in the field said they did not know of anyone keeping definitive statistics on rates of entrepreneurship for veterans, but that they believed the percentage remained small. Those veterans who do start businesses can benefit from many nonprofits and mentoring organizations and vast networks of veterans willing to help, but they also face challenges that veterans of earlier wars did not.

“World War II veterans were a large part of the work force,” said Kevin McDermott, who in 2007 helped found Patriot Taxiway Industries, an airfield and aircraft lighting provider based in Lomira, Wis., with a fellow Air Force veteran. “The 1950s workplace they created was a reflection of military culture.” Recent veterans, however, struggle to reconcile the disparate cultures of the military, which is regimented and hierarchical, and the entrepreneurial realm, which values critical thinking and innovation.

“In the military you’re told what you’re going to do from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” Mr. McDermott said. “Veterans need to adjust. We give goals or objectives and they need to learn to set their own schedules.”

While military training provides relevant lessons in loyalty and leadership, moving to the private sector can be agonizing. “When you get out of the military, it’s like being hit in the face by a brick wall,” Mr. Bajema said. “You don’t even know where to start.”

Veterans often lack business education and the ability to translate their skills into desirable qualifications for an employer or client. “A veteran thinks if he cleaned guns in the military, he’ll probably have to do that when he gets out,” said John Raftery, who was a member of the First Marine Division during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and who founded Patriot Contractors, based in Red Oak, Tex. “But if you can identify the skills you learned — like keeping an inventory — you can apply that to something like a retail career.” To facilitate the shift, Mr. Raftery and Mr. Bajema attended the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities, a program at Syracuse University that teaches skills like defining a value proposition and taking a product to market.

Communication can be a hurdle. Most civilian employees expect greater diplomacy and tact than is normally afforded military personnel. Mr. Bajema said a substandard employee once cried during a performance review, and later quit. “It was an eye-opener for me,” he said. “In the military there’s no sensitivity. I’ve toned it down and tried to improve myself by asking people I respect how to deliver feedback.”

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