Universal Control

Who will run NBC's cable portfolio?

As NBC moves closer to taking control of Vivendi Universal, the chiefs of Sci Fi Channel and Trio are expected to emerge as the big winners in the inevitable executive shuffle.

Insiders say NBC is likely to dramatically expand the portfolio of Sci Fi Channel President Bonnie Hammer to include VUE's much larger USA Network. Current USA President Doug Herzog is leaving to run Comedy Central once NBC completes the takeover. Trio President Lauren Zalaznick may step up from the tiny pop-culture network and take charge of Bravo, the one-time arts network that NBC is broadening into a general entertainment channel.

Both are expected to report to Jeff Gaspin, currently president of Bravo and executive vice president of NBC's reality programming. Jeff Zucker, NBC entertainment, news, and cable president, has balked at freeing Gaspin from the broadcast network's reality programming; The Apprentice
promises to be NBC's antidote for the departure of Friends.
So Gaspin is expected to be crowned head of NBC's entertainment cable portfolio but also to continue to direct broadcast reality development.

An executive familiar with the discussions strongly cautions, though, that "nothing is a lock."

The management moves may clarify who will run the cable properties but not how NBC brass will mesh them with the most profitable broadcast network. NBC wouldn't comment. Wall Street executives expect the FTC to approve the deal without major modifications as early as April 27. NBC parent General Electric expects to close the deal shortly afterwards.

The plan: to hitch the fortunes of the smaller cable networks to NBC's mighty marketing and promotion machine. Like proud peacocks, Zucker and other NBC executives like to point to Bravo, which went from a Nielsen laggard when NBC bought it 18 months ago to must-see status on the backs of the Queer Eye
guys. But Bravo was one of the lowest-rated networks in cable, starved for programming and marketing money. USA and Sci Fi, the prizes in VUE's $14 billion portfolio, are at the top of their game, with USA finishing the first quarter as the highest-rated basic network.

"You know what NBC's going to bring to the table?" says Sanford, Bernstein & Co. media analyst Michael Nathanson. "Margin and cost discipline." General Electric, an acquisition machine, is known for enforcing its rigid financial and operating systems on its takeover targets. USA and Universal's TV-production unit will be held to the same standards as GE's thermoplastics unit.

For example, one clear strategy will be rerunning NBC hits on its cable networks within a week of original air date. That spreads the production costs and gives the NBC cable networks a nice Nielsen boost. Reruns of monster hit The Apprentice
are currently the top-rated product on CNBC. "Why is The Apprentice
on CNBC?" asks Nathanson. "Let's kick JAG
off USA and put on The Apprentice."

It looks like that strategy will be executed by Hammer and Zalaznick, both highly regarded by industry and NBC executives. Hammer is the more conventional programmer, credited with broadening Sci Fi beyond sci-fi geeks into a top-10 basic network with a good mix of women in the audience. She does that with a combination of space adventures with fanatical followings like Farscape
and more-human originals like Steven Spielberg's epic miniseries Taken.
She says Sci Fi makes more original movies and miniseries than any other TV network, broadcast or cable.

Zalaznick's approach to network-building is scrappier. Handicapped by limited distribution and a minuscule, $20 million programming budget, she has nevertheless made Trio a hip darling of the TV community through crafty packaging and promotion. One of her best moves was dressing up failed (hence, low-cost) broadcast-network series into a well-received programming stunt, Brilliant, But Cancelled. She's following that up this summer with a flop-focused stunt, Just Plain Cancelled,
and theatrical movies (including a week of Madonna disasters).

Those tactics suit Bravo, whose ad sales are still a little too lean to support hugely expensive fare. Last week, it unveiled a development slate sprinkled with inexpensive imitations of existing Bravo shows (Queer Eye for the Straight Girl) and ripoffs of nostalgia shows on VH1 (where Gaspin once ran programming).

Not everybody will make the cut when NBC takes over Vivendi Universal. Universal Chairman Michael Jackson and Television Group President David Goldhill are expected to leave. Universal Television Productions President David Kissinger may stay around for a while, but mainly for transition purposes.