His Vision Expanded NBC
Bob Wright took Tartikoff's network to new heights
By Claire Atkinson -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/27/2008 7:00:00 PM
He Had No Quit
Former NBC Universal Chairman and CEO Bob Wright has spent the past 20 years transforming NBC from a broadcast network into a global multimedia powerhouse, ranging from Spanish-language Telemundo to the women's Web site iVillage. Wright also led NBC's move into cable with CNBC and MSNBC. And later, when NBC acquired Vivendi Universal Entertainment, he snagged USA and Sci Fi.
He came in when GE purchased NBC in 1986, when the network was flying high in large part because of the programming prowess of Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff, and the CEO he replaced, Grant Tinker.
Wright remembers that despite the positive performance of shows such as Cheers, Hill Street Blues and Family Ties, the network needed more resources than its former corporate owner, RCA, was able to give. The issue was to get NBC to the next level, says Wright.
They found they had much to learn from each other. “I tried to help Brandon become a better businessperson,” Wright says. “He helped me gain a better knowledge of the entertainment business.”
Wright, who receives a 2008 Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award, describes his former colleague as someone who was honest and straightforward, in an industry known for glad-handing and superficiality. “He had no political agenda; there was no secret coding. He was a hard worker and I was impressed with how unemotional he could be.”
Tartikoff had an ability to argue for shows without putting his personal feelings on the line, says Wright. He also credits Tartikoff with teaching him a great deal about show marketing and how to deal with talent relations. “The nature of executives is to dodge the talent and humor them and protect them from true opinions. I don't mean to imply you say the first thing that comes to mind, but don't give them false hope. You have honest, good suggestions.”
The hardest period Wright had to navigate? He says helping the network climb out of the ratings dumper back in the early 1990s. The network eventually emerged from behind the pack to dominate an entire decade with a handful of shows including Seinfeld, a series both Tartikoff and his boss championed early on.
“General Electric stood behind us in a period when the ad market stunk and we were the phoenix coming back with Friends, ER, Seinfeld and Frasier,” says Wright. His legacy, he feels, was the positive relationship between NBC and General Electric. “I tried my best never to let NBC Universal get too far from General Electric. It was never a stepchild, and that was true with both [former GE CEO] Jack Welch and [current CEO] Jeffrey Immelt.”
Wright has a passion for the medium and for life, with a sharp sense of humor he often aims at himself. NATPE president and CEO Rick Feldman notes that, “Bob is involved in an amazing number of charities; he's not just a businessman but a good guy. He was a confidant and friend of both Brandon and his wife, Lilly, and from multiple perspectives has had an amazing career and really allowed people to flourish.”
NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams credits Wright for steering NBC through a dramatic sea change and ensuring that NBC remained strong. “Brandon Tartikoff's name is the stuff of legend around here, as it was when he was coming up in the business, in his heyday, and as it will always be. That Bob is receiving this honor in Brandon's name is a wonderful bit of justice.”
In fact, Wright started at General Electric in 1969 as a staff lawyer, before the conglomerate owned NBC. He moved up and around the corporation, working in senior management in the plastics and finance units. During a brief but critical period in his career, Wright also ran Cox Cable Communications, giving him early insight into the importance of this emerging industry.
Wright counts the acquisition of Universal as one of his greatest achievements. NBC didn't own a studio, and it didn't have an entertainment-based cable network. Getting Universal gave it both. At one point during NBC's negotiations with Vivendi Universal Entertainment, the deal almost fell apart. Former NBC president Herb Schlosser, now a senior media adviser at Citigroup, was involved in those talks as a consultant and remembers Wright's crucial role.
“One of the most important aspects of somebody in that job is the ability to pull the trigger and personally get involved and not leave it to underlings. Bob made sure it got done,” remembers Schlosser. “When you're CEO and you make an acquisition, there is always risk and not all acquisitions work out. But you have to go for it and I saw him do that.”
Wright has already handed off his responsibilities to his successor, NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker, who, he says, will have a tough road ahead navigating the digital era: “I hope that we have built a strong enough entity with NBC Universal to survive the transition from analog to digital, and from what was a broadcast business to a cable and satellite business.”
He worries about the effect the writers' strike will have on the health of the broadcast business overall. “The broadcasters are swimming in red ink and not seeing any real profits coming out of it [digital]. The last thing they want to do is pay more for digital programming before it gets off the ground.”
In keeping with his entrepreneurial spirit, Wright may be leaving NBC's New York headquarters at 30 Rock [he remains a vice chairman at General Electric for a short while longer], but he remains a businessman. He's already pouring his efforts into Autism Speaks, a national nonprofit group with a staff of 170—his grandson suffers from the condition—and will continue to develop new businesses in the consumer products and entertainment fields.
As Schlosser puts it: “The work he's doing for autism is very admirable. If they [Bob and wife, Suzanne] can make a mark there, they'll be doing something that's even more important than anything he's done before.”
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