Andrew Lack has a Herculean task ahead of him. Lack was sworn in January 20 as Chief Executive Officer and Director of the U.S. International Broadcasting (USIB) services. His job will be to sort out the mess that has resulted from years of bad management and misplaced priorities at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the part-time board that for two decades has attempted to run the U.S. government’s complex of media services.
The good news is that a CEO for international broadcasting has been needed for years and has now been hired. Lack’s background as a media executive is impressive: He has served as chairman of the Bloomberg Media Group, chief operating officer at NBC, president of NBC News, and television producer at CBS News. He has also been chairman and CEO of Sony Music Entertainment.
What Lack does not have—or “lacks” if you want—is experience in the U.S. government, which in the past has bewildered appointees with extensive private-sector experience. The laws of supply and demand, of profit and shareholders, simply do not apply.
Instead, the new CEO will have to deal with budget constraints imposed by Congress and oversight by committees who have the power to seek answers and set priorities; employees who cannot be fired because of trade union agreements; and competing bureaucracies that have evolved over time. All of that is before even beginning to address the challenges of responding to international crises and the complexities of reporting the news on behalf of the U.S. government.
BBG Chairman Jeffery Schell summed it up in an announcement to colleagues at the International Broadcasting Bureau (part of the BBG), “As you all know well, the challenges we face are immense.” No doubt there. The USIB is facing increasingly stiff competition from other global government broadcasters including RT (Russia Today), CCTV (Chinese television), and Al Jazeera (Qatar) to name a few. Government censorship is keeping U.S. broadcasting out of a number of target countries. And in the Middle East, the United States desperately needs a media strategy to deal with the explosion of extreme radical Islamism and its impact on social media.
Many have argued that in order to equip the USIB to take on these challenges, it needs major structural reform. Last year, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation, H.R. 4490, to reform the media services under the Broadcasting Board of Governors. It was never introduced in the Senate, though. Reform still needs to happen, unless we somehow believe that one man—Andrew Lack—can do it all.