UTA, Tied to TV-News Traditions, Pushes to Break Them

·6-min read

When United Talent Agency revives its annual party this evening around the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington, D.C., expected guests will hail from the worlds of journalism, politics, entertainment and sports. The tableau might just contain members of the next big set of TV anchors, too.

UTA has in recent months been working to convince some of the nation’s biggest TV-news outlets to consider correspondents and contributors to whom they might not have given a serious look in the past. In a different era, former Ohio Governor John Kasich, a UTA client with a dry demeanor, might not seem like someone destined to get frequent airtime after leaving office. And yet in recent months, he’s been a regular presence on CNN. Symone Sanders, the UTA client who is a former Democratic strategist and counselor to Vice President Kamala Harris, might not seem like a candidate to be an anchor, but MSNBC is about to launch a new show with her at the center.

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The big news outlets “will always have local correspondents who will continue to matriculate through the system, but I don’t think it’s one size fits all,” says Jay Sures, co-president and a board member at UTA who maintains a strong presence behind the scenes in many of TV’s biggest news organizations. He has been with UTA since its formation in the early 1990s. “Everyone in the news business is open to new faces and new voices in ways they haven’t been in the historical past.” That means considering experts whose main work might be found in newsletters, like Chris Cillizza of CNN, Jonathan Swan of Axios or Dylan Byers of Puck, or it might mean relying on someone from the world of sports. CBS News, one of the most venerable news institutions, recently raised eyebrows by installing former football great Nate Burleson behind the desk of “CBS Mornings.”

UTA is among many entities pivoting to new concepts amid a move to reach consumers via a broad array of untested digital concepts. Every major news outlet is experimenting with streaming formats and other types of programming that would likely not thrive on traditional broadcast and cable. For every “Good Morning America” or “60 Minutes,” there are a host of broadband counterparts that encompass true-crime serials on Fox Nation; shopping programs on the streaming version of NBC’s “Today”; and even a scripted Hulu program based on the reporting and podcasting of ABC News business and technology correspondent Rebecca Jarvis that stars Amanda Seyfried.

“I have to be honest with you. I think to a certain degree great agenting is giving [news executives] ideas and telling them what they should be looking at. That’s what our job is,” says Sures. “It’s introducing them to a different way of looking at things and saying to them, ‘Just because you did it this way yesterday doesn’t mean you need to do it this way tomorrow.’”

UTA is able to champion new kinds of news correspondents in part because it has so many ties to traditional ones. The agency represents many of CNN’s best-known anchors, including Anderson Cooper, Don Lemon, Jake Tapper, Brian Stelter, Alisyn Camerota and John Berman. It has ties to MSNBC personnel like Sanders and Ali Velshi, and to Fox News mainstays like Brian Kilmeade, Bret Baier and Bill Hemmer. Two of the broadcast networks’ evening-news anchors — David Muir and Norah O’Donnell — had their most recent contracts negotiated by UTA, and the agency represents an NBC News correspondent, Tom Llamas, who is considered in some circles to be a candidate to anchor ‘NBC Nightly News” in years to come.

UTA is also believed to have had a hand in helping bring Jen Psaki, the current White House Press Secretary, to a new gig that will have her anchoring a program at MSNBC in months to come. Psaki has yet to sign a formal contract with MSNBC, according to two people familiar with the matter, and would likely not show up on its air for a period of immediately after leaving the White House. A UTA spokesperson declined to comment.

Rivals are also trying to work these new areas of the business. CAA represents George Stephanopoulos, who recently unveiled a deal with ABC News that allows him to create new projects for Hulu. WME was the agency behind Rachel Maddow’s recent landmark deal with NBCUniversal that is letting her peel back from weeknight duties on MSNBC and work on new projects that range from films — a current effort is being produced in conjunction with Lorne Michaels — and podcasts, among other projects. The independent agent Olivia Metzger has crafted deals for clients like Geoff Bennett and Jonathan Capehart that allow them to contribute to multiple news outlets.

Part of UTA’s strength comes from its history. In 2014, the company acquired N.S. Bienstock, the legendary boutique that made a strong business in representing anchors. Richard Leibner, one of the founders, recently retired, but Carole Cooper, another force in the business, continues to work for UTA. Leibner, says Sures, “was the one who created the concept that big-name news anchors should be compensated like movie stars, like high-level talent, and that forever changed the game, paved the way for us to make some of these deals.”

Executives at the agency are particularly proud of a recent negotiation that created a new alliance between Jenna Bush Hager and NBCUniversal. Under terms of the pact, Bush Hager, the longtime “Today” contributor and co-host of the show’s fourth hour, gets to turbo-charge a book club she has led at NBC News for past months, developing work by some of the authors she finds into projects for NBCU.

“If you were to look back ten years ago, that would be a deal that would never have been made,” says Sures, “because anchors were just closely held on to by the news divisions and they didn’t want people to play back and forth between arenas. News was news and entertainment was entertainment, and now the lines are breaking down.”

News executives can expect UTA to keep pushing at tradition. The next star news correspondent “could come from the traditional local market, but could come from politics, could come from thought leadership, could come, potentially, from sports,” says Sures. “We won’t rule out looking anywhere.”

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