Since taking over as chief of NBCUniversal News Group last year, Cesar Conde has made it clear he wants the division to place a bigger bet on streaming.
As contract renewals emerge with top talent such as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Joy Reid, and CNBC’s Shepard Smith, these people will likely be asked to produce content for streaming services including Peacock, according to people familiar with the matter. It is part of a plan to have a large and loyal streaming audience as the traditional TV business starts to fade.
Mr. Conde, 47 years old, has begun to put his stamp on the organization—which includes MSNBC, CNBC and NBC News—as he manages the news division during one of the busiest and most unpredictable periods for news in years.
In addition to the streaming push, Mr. Conde has emphasized fiscal discipline, centralizing oversight of the news networks and cutting executive positions that each channel has had up to now, people familiar with the personnel changes said. He has taken business responsibilities away from some top personnel, such as CNBC Chairman Mark Hoffman, the people said.
“I think the bottom line here is what he’s going to be compared to,” said Frank Sesno, a former news executive and director of strategic initiatives at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. “If the Trump years are going to be the baseline for attention, it’s going to be very hard for anybody.”
In the first quarter, MSNBC averaged about 2.2 million prime-time viewers, not far behind leader Fox News, and was No. 1 in total-day viewership among cable news networks for the first time in its history, according to Nielsen. While all the major cable news networks had lower prime-time viewership in the first quarter compared with the election-heavy fourth quarter, MSNBC had the smallest percentage drop.
In calls with news chiefs, Mr. Conde has signaled he believes there are several story lines to keep drawing in audiences, including debates between progressive politicians and more centrist Democrats; fissures in the Republican party; the continuing reckoning over racial justice in the U.S.; climate change; and Covid-19’s trajectory, people familiar with the calls said.
Lester Holt, anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” said that throughout his career he has observed that big stories have frequently broken just as others were beginning to recede. “I’m very careful now not to say things like, ‘oh, this is the biggest story ever,’ because every time I say that something else comes along to supplant it,” Mr. Holt said. Mr. Holt recently extended his contract at NBC News.
MSNBC often lags behind its rivals in the ratings during major general-news events, as it did last week when the verdict in the Derek Chauvin murder trial was announced.
Shifting toward streaming news is tricky because traditional TV is still very lucrative. And networks must be careful that their digital services won’t violate contractual obligations with partners, including cable operators and TV stations that carry their programming.
Mr. Conde is pressing forward. On Friday, NBCUniversal, a unit of Comcast Corp., signed a deal to bring in veteran anchor Tom Llamas, the former weekend host of ABC’s “World News Tonight,” to host a prime-time show on NBC News Now, an ad-supported streaming service, according to the people familiar with the matter. Mr. Llamas will be a senior national correspondent for NBC News and will appear on “NBC Nightly News” and “Today.”
Mr. Conde takes a different approach to weighing in on editorial matters than other executives in charge of newsrooms, people familiar with his management style say. CNN President Jeff Zucker often leads the network’s daily news calls and frequently emails employees with story ideas. Mr. Conde listens to morning news calls but seldom speaks, preferring to follow up directly with network presidents after the calls if he wants to weigh in, one of the people said.
He has cultivated relationships with talent at the news group, meeting with anchors such as “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough over meals to exchange views on the direction of the network, according to the people familiar with the matter.
The son of immigrants from Peru and Cuba, the New York-born Mr. Conde is the first Latino to lead a general-interest English-language TV news organization. He has spent much of his career rising through the ranks of Spanish-language networks such as Univision and Telemundo. Mr. Conde, who favors NBC-branded polos and monogrammed button-up shirts, has always been on the business side of news, unlike some industry counterparts who started out as producers. He is a corporate director at Walmart Inc. and PepsiCo Inc.
Mr. Conde, a Harvard University graduate, was a White House fellow during the George W. Bush administration, where he worked for then-Secretary of State Colin Powell.
As Univision Communications Inc.’s president, a role he assumed in 2009, he had to deal with the aftermath of a fight between the company and its chief programming supplier, Grupo Televisa SA B, which had sued Univision for breach of contract, alleging it owed $118 million in unpaid royalties. Univision said it already paid the disputed royalties. The lawsuit was settled in 2009, soon before Mr. Conde took over. He had to patch up the relationship while pushing Televisa for edgier programming that would appeal to young audiences, people familiar with those discussions said.
“In those difficult moments it was extremely important that he had a friendly face, which did not mean he was not tough,” Televisa co-Chief Executive Alfonso de Angoitia said. Televisa announced a deal to merge its content business with Univision earlier this month.
Mr. Conde moved to NBCUniversal in 2013 to run Telemundo, Univision’s primary Spanish-language rival, and emphasized soccer rights, family comedies and nontraditional “narconovelas”—soap operas about drug lords—that helped boost ratings by targeting younger viewers.
When Mr. Conde took over in May 2020, NBCUniversal was already balancing coverage of a global pandemic and the coming presidential election. The news didn’t let up after Election Day. In January, Mr. Conde was preparing to open a new office in Washington that would put the news operations of NBC, MSNBC, CNBC and Telemundo under one roof—part of his plan to encourage more collaboration between the networks—when rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Mr. Conde turned his attention to the story. He called his security chief to check in on NBC’s journalists—one was barricaded in the House chamber—and conferred with top news staffers about the possibility of copycat riots in other state capitals, according to the people familiar with the matter. Mr. Conde put his plan to open the office on hold for a few weeks over security concerns.
One of Mr. Conde’s first major personnel changes was to elevate newsroom veteran Rashida Jones as MSNBC’s president, succeeding Phil Griffin. She became the first Black female executive to run a major general-interest news cable network. He also approved Ms. Reid as host of MSNBC’s 7 p.m. hour, succeeding Chris Matthews. Both moves were well-received among employees who felt NBCUniversal’s news division didn’t have enough nonwhite executives and on-air talent.
Last summer, Mr. Conde announced a “50% Challenge” to push for half of the division’s employees to be people of color, and half of them to be women. The network said the effort is bearing fruit, with people of color representing about 46% of its new hires since the challenge was announced and women representing about 67% of new hires.
Mr. Conde has tried to hold down costs and invest in growth initiatives. In the past year, the news group has hired about 100 employees whose primary responsibility is to produce content or products for digital platforms and is in the process of hiring 35 more, one person familiar with the matter said.
As he centralized management, Mr. Conde put executive Chris Berend in charge of the news group’s digital efforts, while Sat Brainch, veteran of CNBC, is now the chief commercial officer for all of the networks, the people familiar with the personnel changes said.
Write to Benjamin Mullin at Benjamin.Mullin@wsj.com
Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8