Deborah Turness quits NBC and returns to ITN as Chief Executive

From the moment that ITN announced that Anna Mallett was off to Netflix, NBC News International President Deborah Turness was odds-on favourite to take the Chief Executive’s job.

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day

There are not many, if any, news executives like Deborah. She is driven, passionate, and visionary.

I first met her in 1997 when she was running the news-desk on the newly launched 5 News where I was interning.

The service had hired the pick of young TV news talent, the staffing roster reads like a list of the great and good of broadcast news: Chris Shaw, Kirsty Young, Adrian Monck, Craig Oliver, Mark Adams, and a youthful Rachel Corp.

But even among them Deborah stood out, fizzing with ideas and enthusiasm. It was obvious even then that she was destined for great things.

She rose at 5 News, became the Deputy Editor, before leaving to launch Channel 4’s ill-fated breakfast show RI:SE, in 2002.

Industry gossip at the time held that Deborah was escorted from 200 Gray’s Inn road by security when she told the bosses she was leaving.

Six months later she was back at ITN as the great David Mannion‘s deputy on ITV News, eventually taking over as Editor in 2004. Not just the first woman to do the job but the youngest person to lead ITV’s network news team.

Deborah was demanding, creative and ambitious. Every programme that ITV News produced bore her stamp. She would dream up campaigns and treatments, much to the annoyance of the grey suits in the newsroom.

Slowly but surely, she remade the service in her image. Her dynamism and leadership, forcing change despite the newsroom’s inertia.

Hurricane Deborah became an in-joke. Even featuring in a mock weather forecast on her leaving tape when she quit to become President of NBC News.

But there are not many news bosses that would roll up their sleeves and start writing pre-com teases, if she thought a struggling programme editor needed help.

Deborah’s time at NBC News seems to have been more difficult viewed from this side of the Atlantic. Her desire to reform and renew the service under-mined by internal politics and presenter scandals.

She was eventually moved to run NBC News International. Firstly, making a virtue of necessity by embracing mobile journalism at EuroNews. Then trying to launch an ambitious international news channel marrying NBC News and Sky News.

With its cancellation and the sale of NBC’s share of EuroNews, it was obvious she was looking for a new challenge.

And that challenge? Securing a future for ITN.

The company has made great strides under former CEO John Hardie. ITN Productions has become a competitive force in the indie marketplace for news and commercial programming.

But if ITV decided to cut its news provision tomorrow, ITN would be dead. Not least because of the size of the pension deficit.

In an on-demand, multi-platform world, linear channels with appointment to view news programmes look expensive luxuries. Sooner or later, they are going to go.

It looks as if Deborah’s greatest challenge is still ahead of her: finding a creative purpose and a financially secure future for ITN that does not rely on one or two increasingly vulnerable big contracts.

Author: Matt Walsh

Journalist

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