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More NBCU Surprises?

12/15/2006 07:00:00 PM Eastern

It’s a fait accompli in most industry folks’ minds that Jeff Zucker will soon ascend to the NBC Universal throne and replace longtime Chairman Bob Wright. But as we say goodbye to a year filled with out-of-left-field surprises—many of them at NBCU—here’s another: Disney-ABC TV chief Anne Sweeney has been mentioned as a contender for the job.

Sweeney’s name came up more than once in conversations I’ve had in the past couple weeks about the future of NBCU.

Not for nothing. She has been instrumental in the resurgence of ABC and Disney’s cable properties, as well as the pioneering deal with Apple to distribute programming on iTunes. And with a reputation as a tough, competitive manager, she could be the right person to lead the company through a sweeping reorganization plan to trim $750 million from the budget and a difficult transition following the defection of three veteran executives.

The turmoil at NBCU in recent weeks—culminating in the successive departures of Randy Falco, David Zaslav and Keith Turner—make this scenario all the more plausible. But despite the chatter about Sweeney, the odds-on bet is that the job is Zucker’s.

Although Zucker’s tenure as NBC’s entertainment chief was rocky, he has improved his record as CEO of NBCU TV Group. The broadcast network is coming back to life after years in the doldrums, and NBCU’s stable of cable networks—from Bravo to USA Networks to CNBC—are all making money. Most important, folks inside 30 Rock say he is close with GE Chairman Jeffrey Immelt.

And Immelt seems chipper about NBCU’s future. Speaking at GE’s annual outlook meeting last week, he described NBCU as having a “killer year” and predicted 5% growth in 2007.

Conventional wisdom says that the GE chief is just doing his due diligence by giving Sweeney a once-over. (She may not even be available: I hear she has at least two years left on her Disney deal.) After all, other marquee-name executives have been given obligatory consideration, including ex-Viacom CEO Tom Freston. Reviewing a thorough slate of outside candidates—even after he has already settled on in-house favorite Zucker—is simply what the GE board expects Immelt to do.

While a lot of folks on both coasts are dismissing the Sweeney/NBCU talk as idle chatter—and let’s face it, the media industry lives for this kind of chatter—others are not so quick to write it off.

Immelt’s bullish predictions for NBCU in the coming year are a particularly tall order after being down 4%. Some industry prognosticators suggest that Immelt’s projections are overly optimistic and note that much of the ratings resurgence at the broadcast network has come with a big price tag—as in the $600 million NBC paid for NFL rights.

The stakes are indeed high for Immelt. NBCU accounts for about 10% of GE’s more than $146 billion in revenues. Tea-leaf readers suggest that the recent appointment of Michael Pilot, a GE executive with no TV-industry experience, to head all of network ad sales—a decision made by Immelt, not Zucker—is evidence that the GE chairman could do the unexpected.

If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on Zucker. But after a year that began with news of the demise of two broadcast networks and the birth of another, anything can happen. Remember, Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone kicked Freston to the curb after years of treating him “like a son” and all but anointing him as his heir apparent.

The echo chamber can be frivolous—and it’s often wrong. But you can’t ignore it.

E-mail comments to bcrobins@reedbusiness.com

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