By J. Max Robins -- Broadcasting & Cable, 12/18/2005 7:00:00 PM
Just as soon as our story hit the Web last Thursday that NBC Universal Chairman Bob Wright had orchestrated a makeover of the executive suites, the industry tealeaf readers started analyzing what it all really meant beyond a press release touting a “newly integrated” operation.
Wright elevated Jeff Zucker to CEO of the NBC Universal Television Group. A handful of key executives who formerly answered to Wright now report to Zucker.
To some observers high up inside NBC headquarters at 30 Rock, the move had corporate parent General Electric Chairman Jeffrey Immelt's fingerprints all over it. Word was, Immelt believes that Wright, in the wake of spending $14 billion to acquire Vivendi Universal Entertainment properties, simply has too much on his plate, from integrating two disparate cultures to keeping peace between key lieutenants.
And Wright has more work to do. According to numbers GE shared with Wall Street, NBC Universal should post 10% revenue growth but zero profit growth in 2006. Not only does Wright face challenges with NBC, where GE warned the Street to expect a continued decline in prime time, he has hurdles at the film studio as well. The reorganization at the TV group came right on the heels of NBC Universal's losing out to Viacom in the strategic acquisition of DreamWorks.
Against this back­drop, the expanded role Zucker is getting clearly designates him as 62-year-old Wright's heir-apparent. Some in the business were incredulous when they learned of Zucker's ascent. There have been bright spots in areas that report to him: The profit machine known as Today seems to have righted itself (although co-host Katie Couric may leave for CBS), there was a smooth transition from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams at NBC Nightly News, and such acquired outfits as the USA Network and Sci Fi Channel have shown significant post-merger growth.
There are also troubles, ranging from NBC's prominent prime time collapse to continued ratings challenges at CNBC, MSNBC and Bravo.
Still, Zucker, who has embraced GE's tough, disciplined management ethos, has earned the trust of Immelt. And Wright, his boss and longtime mentor, apparently thinks the woes in Zucker's empire are more part of the cyclical nature of the business than a case of mismanagement. Some NBC brass note that Zucker is an adroit internal politician, who managed to outmaneuver his main rival in the television group, Randy Falco, who for years has been in charge of operations and ad sales. With the reorganization, Falco, president and COO of the TV group, gets a little more turf but now reports to Zucker instead of to Wright. “Zucker is more articulate, the consummate showman,” says one longtime associate of both men. “Randy is an introvert, more of a thinker and doer.”
For Kremlinologists within the halls of NBC, one of the most interesting elements of the shake-up is the return of Beth Comstock to the executive suites, with the lengthy title of president of NBC Universal Digital Media and Market Development. In contrast to Falco, she will report to Wright. Formerly Wright's top public-relations executive, Comstock moved up to GE, first serving ex-chairman Jack Welch in that role and then becoming the company's chief marketing officer, working closely with Immelt. While she has Wright's trust, she's widely seen as Immelt's eyes and ears. (To see a complete listing of who reports to whom, see the NBC U scorecard, p. 30.)
In announcing the changes, Wright said he was looking for “maximum cooperation and effectiveness.” According to the NBC Universal chairman, it's all about making sure that all his “assets and people are completely aligned.”
Certainly, that is Wright's intent. But even without asking, a lot of the residents of 30 Rock will tell you there's a whole lotta shakin' going on.
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