NBC’s Biggest Scandals Ever
Initially known as the National Broadcasting System, the entity now known as NBC was launched way back in 1926, originally as a radio network. As the Library of Congress recalled, in 1939 NBC launched its first television station in New York City and never looked back. For years, NBC held its own as one of the “big three” networks alongside ABC and CBS, a dominance that became wobbly when cable TV entered the picture, and grew even wobblier when Netflix and other streaming services entered the picture.
Along the way, NBC has experienced its fair share of turbulence. While the network’s flagship late-night talk show, “The Tonight Show,” and its morning news show, “Today,” have both been ratings monsters that have generated billions in revenue, both shows have also brought the network some downright devastating press coverage — for a variety of reasons.
Scandals? There have been a few, from the downfall of both beloved and controversial news personalities, to some absolutely jaw-dropping behind-the-scenes chicanery. Read on for a recap of NBC’s biggest scandals ever.
Jay Leno hid in a closet to snatch The Tonight Show
When Johnny Carson announced his retirement from “The Tonight Show” in 1991, David Letterman was widely assumed to be a lock as Carson’s replacement. After all, for nearly a decade, Letterman had been hosting his own groundbreaking NBC late-night show, “Late Night with David Letterman,” following Carson’s “Tonight.” However, as journalist Bill Carter’s book The Late Shift (which was adapted into an HBO movie) made clear, another contender emerged.
Jay Leno’s star had risen, ironically, due to his frequent appearances on Letterman’s show, and Leno waged a tireless behind-the-scenes campaign aimed at the owners of NBC’s affiliate stations, selling them on the idea that he’d be far easier to work with than the prickly Letterman. What sealed the deal, Carter reported, was when Leno hid in a closet to eavesdrop on then-NBC chief Warren Littlefield. “I just pulled the door behind me and listened, very simple,” Leno told Access Hollywood of the incident, adding, “You learn who your allies are and who’s with you and who’s against you.”
Leno eventually got the job, while his disgruntled rival fled NBC and launched his own show on CBS, “Late Night with David Letterman.”
NBC kneecapped Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show
After David Letterman’s departure from NBC, Conan O’Brien took over the vacated “Late Night” spot. In 2004, NBC faced a conundrum; O’Brien’s contract was up, and reports indicated that the rival Fox network was trying to lure O’Brien with boatloads of cash. O’Brien had made no secret of his eagerness to host an 11:30 p.m. show, leaving NBC contemplating a potential scenario in which O’Brien would compete head-to-head with Leno and Letterman. To keep O’Brien from bolting, the network made the surprising announcement that O’Brien was replacing Leno as host of “Tonight” — in five years, that is.
When 2009 finally rolled around, however, NBC faced a new dilemma: Leno’s ratings remained strong, and he didn’t seem to want to leave. If Leno were to jump to another network, Leno would pose a serious threat to O’Brien’s “Tonight.” To prevent that from happening, NBC execs came up with an ill-conceived plan to keep Leno at NBC by offering him his own five-night-a-week show in primetime — right before the local news broadcasts that preceded “The Tonight Show.”
NBC’s experiment was a disaster. O’Brien’s tenure on “Tonight” lasted seven months before Leno was Leno was reinstated as host, with the network paying O’Brien a reported $40 million to go away.
NBC's The Playboy Club was quickly cancelled after boycotts and controversy
Comedian Fred Allen famously said that “imitation is the sincerest form of television,” a truism that’s remained in place despite the decades that have passed since he said it. That was clearly the thinking behind NBC’s 2011 drama “The Playboy Club,” which was clearly inspired by the success of “Mad Men.”
Despite being set in the same era, while “Mad Men” basked in accolades, “The Playboy Club” — set at Hugh Hefner’s flagship Chicago Playboy Club in the early 1960s — was instantly hit with controversy. According to The Hollywood Reporter, not only did feminist icon Gloria Steinem urge a boycott, one NBC affiliate flat-out refused to air the show.
When the series was unceremoniously cancelled after just a few episodes, reported Entertainment Weekly, the infamous Parents Television Council issued a statement to gloat about it. “Bringing ‘The Playboy Club’ to broadcast television was a poor programming decision from the start,” read the group’s statement. “We’re pleased that NBC will no longer be airing a program so inherently linked to a pornographic brand that denigrates and sexualizes women … we hope other broadcasters heed the important lessons of this programming debacle.”
Ann Curry's demotion was a PR nightmare for NBC
NBC’s flagship morning show, “Today,” was slammed with controversy in 2012 when Ann Curry was demoted after less than a year in the anchor chair. As New York pointed out, reports pinned the sudden staffing switch on co-anchor Matt Lauer, citing a lack of “chemistry” between the two. The negativity that surrounded the awkward situation hit “Today” hard. “In the aftermath of the Curry debacle, the show lost half a million viewers and ceded first place in the ratings war to ABC’s ‘Good Morning America,’ losing millions of dollars overnight,” reported the magazine.
Eight years after her “Today” disaster, Curry admitted that chapter in her life remained a painful one. “The bottom line is that it still hurts,” Curry said in a 2020 interview with Elle, adding, “It honestly hurts really deeply, because I really think I did nothing wrong.” In fact, Curry admitted she still hadn’t received a clear explanation about why she was fired. “I still don’t really understand it. If I had known what was happening in the back rooms of power, then I would know,” she said. “I’ve asked people why, and I haven’t gotten a good answer.”
Brian Williams' wartime fibbing cost him his anchor gig
Brian Williams had held the top anchor position at NBC News since 2004, when he replaced Tom Brokaw as anchor and managing editor of the “NBC Nightly News.” Prior to that, Williams served as a war correspondent in Iraq. As the Los Angeles Times recalled, whenever Williams subsequently appeared on a talk show, he was prone to share an anecdote about being in a helicopter that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. The Times also noted that the story seemed to change every time he told it. It all came crashing down in a 2015 interview with Stars and Stripes, when Williams was forced to fess up to his pants-on-fire fibbing. “No, we never came under direct enemy fire to the aircraft,” Williams admitted.
Williams was ultimately suspended without pay for six months, reported The New York Times. As The Verge later reported, Lester Holt took over the anchor duties at “NBC Nightly News,” a replacement gig that wound up becoming permanent. Williams eventually found another role within the NBCUniversal family, anchoring a weeknight show on MSNBC, “The 11th Hour with Brian Williams.”
NBC cut ties with Trump over his 'derogatory statements'
When Donald Trump announced his presidential run in the summer of 2015, he immediately created controversy thanks to an incendiary speech that, in part, accused Mexico of “sending people [to America] that have lots of problems, and they are bringing those problems to us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
That speech, reported The Guardian, created a big headache for NBC, given that the wannabe POTUS was, at the time, starring on the network’s reality show, “The Celebrity Apprentice.” In addition, NBC was also embroiled in a deal to air the Trump-owned Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants. Ultimately, NBC decided to cut all ties to the bombastic billionaire. “At NBC, respect and dignity for all people are cornerstones of our values,” a network spokesperson said in a statement. “Due to the recent derogatory statements by Donald Trump regarding immigrants, NBCUniversal is ending its business relationship with Mr. Trump.” Trump responded with a statement of his own, slamming the network as “weak” and “foolish.”
Yet that wasn’t the end of Trump’s association with NBC. Further controversy ensued when Trump was invited to host “Saturday Night Live” that November, resulting in a protest and an avalanche of negative press.
Billy Bush's firing after yukking it up about sexual assault
Weeks before the 2016 presidential election, Republican nominee Donald Trump was blindsided by the release of a tape recorded a decade earlier. The audio featured Trump boasting about using his fame to inflict uninvited kisses on unsuspecting women and bragging about grabbing women’s genitals without their permission, recorded while he chatted with “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush while they wore microphones but weren’t on-camera. Trump responded with an apology and a short statement promising he would “be a better man tomorrow and will never, ever let you down,” reported The New York Times.
The tape’s release was also bad news for NBC. Bush, heard laughing enthusiastically at Trump’s lewd comments, was then a member of the NBC family, having joined “Today” just a few months earlier. Bush was suspended, and then fired. “There is simply no excuse for Billy’s language and behavior on that tape,” an NBC New Senior Vice President Noah Oppenheim said in a statement (via Deadline).
Interestingly enough, the fallout from Trump’s “locker room talk” was far harsher for Bush than it was for Trump. Bush remained unemployed for three years, finally landing another TV job when he was hired by “Extra” in 2019; Trump became America’s 45th president.
NBC paused The Biggest Loser after contestants alleged behind-the-scenes chicanery
“The Biggest Loser” was an out-of-the-box hit when it made its NBC debut in 2004. The premise was aspirational: morbidly obese contestants were put on a radical diet-and-exercise regime over the course of several months, with the person to lose the most weight in the duration of the season winning a $250,000 prize.
In 2016, the show became enveloped in scandal when the New York Post (as reported by Self) reported the claims of a “source close to production” who alleged that contestants were given Adderall (an amphetamine used to treat ADHD) and “pills that contain ephedra extract” (a substance the FDA banned in 2004) to assist in speeding up weight loss. In addition, former contestant Suzanne Mendonca told the Post that it was common for contestants to pop amphetamines and diuretics and then vomit prior to weigh-ins in order to demonstrate a more dramatic weight loss. Trainer Bob Harper denied the allegations, telling Self that what was alleged was “in direct conflict with my lifelong devotion to health and fitness.”
The show didn’t return to NBC after the Post’s report, which became the target of a defamation lawsuit waged by show doctor Robert Huizenga, who was also alleged by the tabloids sources to have supplied contestants with banned substances. “The Biggest Loser” did, however, finally come back for the NBCUniversal-owned USA Network in 2020.
Matt Lauer's termination from NBC after sexual assault accusations
The negative press Matt Lauer experienced over Ann Curry’s “Today” exit was a mere blip compared to the tsunami of devastating media coverage when he was accused of sexual misconduct in 2017.
A story in Variety detailed the allegations of several women, who shared their accusations of predatory sexual behavior in detail (one of the creepier claims to emerge was that Lauer had a button under his desk that, when pressed, would instantly lock his office door from the outside). Lauer was ultimately fired, with “Today” hosts anchors Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb sharing the news on the air.
Variety subsequently reported that journalist Ronan Farrow’s then-upcoming book, “Catch & Kill,” featured NBC employee Brooke Nevils’ allegation that Lauer had raped her. While Farrow reported that it was NBC’s investigation into Nevils’ claims that led to Lauer’s dismissal, the disgraced TV star denied her accusation in an op-ed he wrote for Mediaite. “Matt Lauer’s conduct was appalling, horrific and reprehensible, as we said at the time,” NBC News said in a statement to Variety. “That’s why he was fired within 24 hours of us first learning of the complaint. Our hearts break again for our colleague.”
Megyn Kelly's fledgling NBC show was pulled after multiple scandals
When NBC hired Megyn Kelly in 2017, it was immediately deemed a controversial choice. After all, Kelly was coming from far-right Fox News, where she was no stranger to making outrageous comments, including claiming both Santa and Jesus were white. She didn’t exactly change minds when her first interview for the network was with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who was being sued by parents of children killed during the Sandy Hook massacre for his disturbing and outrageous claims the mass shooting was a false-flag operation “staged” by actors.
Her daytime series for NBC, “Megyn Kelly Today,” didn’t exactly get off to an auspicious start, either. Kelly was criticized when she badgered Jane Fonda about her plastic surgery, and then ticked off a “Will & Grace” star by asking an audience member if he “became gay” from watching the sitcom.
Kelly really stepped in it, however, when she defended blackface in Halloween costumes. Outrage ensued; Kelly was fired and her show cancelled, less than a month after it premiered. According to CNN, NBC learned an expensive lesson from the experience when the terms of Kelly’s contract required they pay her the remaining $30 million of her $69-million deal.
Bob Costas' criticism of the NFL's concussion scandal led to his NBC exit
Bob Costas had been a member of the NBC Sports team since he was 27, and grew to become one of the network’s most respected personalities as viewers grew to expect his commentary on everything from the World Series to the Olympics to the Kentucky Derby.
As an ESPN report recalled, Costas began speaking out about the spate of retired NFL players who were experiencing brain damage due to persistent head injuries throughout their football careers. Over time, this created friction between his bosses at NBC Sports and the NFL, which broadcast games on NBC. The 2015 release of the film “Concussion,” which dealt with that precise issue, led Costas to submit a script he’d written lambasting the NFL for willfully injuring their players. It never made it on the air, because the network was in the midst of negotiations with the NFL for its popular “Thursday Night Football” broadcasts.
“It was at that point that I realized that this was an untenable situation for me,” Costas told ESPN. “I knew my days there were numbered.” In January 2019, he parted ways with the network that had been his home for 40 years, telling the New York Post, “It’s all settled quietly and happily for all concerned.” However, an NBC rep rebuked his claims regarding his unaired NFL remarks, telling ESPN that the network was “disappointed” that Costas had “chosen to mischaracterize and share these private interactions.”
NBC News chairman Andy Lack was axed after scandalous reports in Ronan Farrow's book
NBC News chairman Andy Lack was on the receiving end of much criticism over the years, from his handling of the Matt Lauer scandal to the allegation that he’d blocked journalist Ronan Farrow’s reporting on Harvey Weinstein from appearing on the network, which Farrow laid out in excruciating detail in his book Catch & Kill. NBC News President Noah Oppenheim vehemently denied Farrow’s reporting at the time, calling it a “smear” that “collapses under the slightest scrutiny.
Still, after five years in the job, Lack was shown the door in May 2020. As NPR reported, Lack was also the driving force behind the disastrous decision to hire Megyn Kelly, which led to a mountain of negative press and cost the network a fortune. What really did Lack in, however, was Farrow’s reporting in his book about Lack’s own behavior. The journalist outlined Lack’s alleged pattern of “preying” on young female staffers, claiming that he “pursued sexual relationships with them” — and then ultimately turned “hostile” toward the women when the relationships ended.
According to NPR, news of Lack’s ouster was buried in an announcement about corporate restructuring that saw Lack replaced by Telemundo exec Cesar Conde, who was appointed to take charge of NBC News, CNBC, and MSNBC.
Gabrielle Union alleged racism was behind her AGT firing
After a single season as judge on “America’s Got Talent,” Gabrielle Union and Julianne Hough weren’t invited back. While Hough issued a statement (via Variety) declaring she “had a wonderful time,” Union went down swinging when she alleged the set was “toxic” and “racially insensitive.” The fact that she took her concerns about her treatment on the show to producers, she claimed, is why she’d been fired.
According to a report in Vulture, Union also clashed with judge Simon Cowell (who created the “… Got Talent” global franchise) over his smoking habit, claiming he had a tendency to light up indoors (illegal in California) in his dressing room, located right next to hers and resulting in smoke seeping into her dressing room.
Union subsequently tweeted that she shared her concerns in a five-hour meeting, which led to an investigation. That investigation ultimately determined “that the concerns raised by Ms. Union had no bearing on the decision not to exercise the option on her contract,” an NBC rep told Page Six. The end result, declared an NBC statement, was “an amicable resolution” between the network and the jilted star.
NBC cancelled the Golden Globes over its diversity scandal
For decades, The Golden Globes have been dogged by accusations of shady practices, largely on account of the alleged mismanagement of the ceremony by its hosting organization, The Hollywood Foreign Press Association (just Google Pia Zadora). By 2021, however, the Globes had built up a sheen of legitimacy that belied the sketchiness of the HFPA, consisting of just 87 mostly elderly members. Yet because of the Globes’ perceived prestige, this small group held outsized power in Hollywood until, in 2021, the HFPA was taken to task for its lack of diversity when a report revealed the group had a grand total of zero Black members.
Vague promises were made to do better and platitudes about inclusion were uttered. However, the Los Angeles Times reported that things got real when more than 100 top Hollywood publicists sent a scathing letter to the HFPA, alleging “discriminatory behavior, unprofessionalism, ethical impropriety and alleged financial corruption.” The letter also called out NBC for its complicity, with the network having aired the ceremony for well over two decades.
On May 10, NBC announced it would not be airing the Golden Globes in 2022, in order to allow the HFPA time to implement all the sweeping changes it laid out to The Hollywood Reporter; the network was “hopeful” the show could return to the network in 2023.
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