Wright's Happy Night

The future of NBC Universal starts with a gala

Mike Ditka, the former star linebacker and later coach of the Chicago Bears, used to wistfully joke that the team's original tight-fisted owner, George Halas, "threw nickels around like manhole covers."

I think about that and the scale of things every once in a while, when I put on the tux and rub shoulders with media titans who breathe different air than you and I. There's that great New Yorker
cartoon of Rupert Murdoch, unable to work through some glitch on his personal computer, on the phone saying, "Let me talk to Bill Gates." It's hardly ever far from my mind that I get to write about, talk to, and even kind of hang around with men and (still ever so rarely) women who deal in a world of hundreds of millions and, yes, billions, of dollars.

Last week, for example, a roomful of television types, turned up at the St. Regis Hotel for the American Museum of the Moving Image black-tie dinner honoring Cox Communications President and CEO Jim Robbins and NBC Chairman Bob Wright.

First, there was the mix of the crowd, for even as the business of broadcasting and the business of cable come together, they are still two communities that rarely do.

That night at the pre-dinner cocktail party though, it was hard to miss the fact that the cable guests—powerful folks like Lifetime's Lynn Picard, Discovery's John Hendricks and Landmark's Decker Anstrom—were there mainly for Robbins, while a bunch of broadcast execs (all from NBC) and talent (especially brilliant Saturday Night Live
comedian Darrell Hammond) were there for Wright.

With no slight to Robbins, though, this was Wright's night, a great big celebration of a great big deal. That very day, NBC announced it had officially sewed up its $14 billion transaction to take over Vivendi Universal Entertainment (VUE), making Wright the master of three more cable networks, the keyholder to theme parks, and the biggest mogul at the great big Universal movie studio. It's impossible to say that every one of the hundreds of guests was in a jovial mood—Saturday Night Live
executive producer Lorne Michaels jokingly lamented that he gave up great tickets to the first game of the Yankees-Red Sox playoff series to kiss up to the boss—but it sure seemed as though the night would end with a fireworks display on Fifth Avenue.

For Wright, who was the presumably empty-suit/manhole-cover–tosser who replaced the legendary Grant Tinker in 1986 when the network was acquired by General Electric, all of this must be not just exciting but enormously gratifying.

Wright, it was once generally conceded, knew nothing about television, except for a short stint at Cox cable. (Coincidentally, he briefly had Robbins's job.) Mainly, he was thought of as a light-bulb guy. Last week, Wright even joked about that. At the dinner, when former NBC President Bob Schlosser gave him an elaborately wrapped book as a gift, Wright asked if it was The History and Invention of the Toaster. It used to be that David Letterman made a joke like that about Wright every other night.

No doubt, the quick expansion of NBC's empire must have a lot of executives, and even some stars, figuring out how they'll fit in. During the cocktail party, we saw Connie Chung and her husband, Maury Povich, star of the Universal syndicated talk show, hustle over to the table where NBC Enterprises chief Ed Wilson was taking visitors. "Connie!" Maury exclaimed, "you have to meet my new boss."

Wright kept the whole night a celebration. But he did make it clear that whatever synergies (read: layoffs) NBC Universal might enact, the key players at Universal were still crucial.

In his brief remarks, Wright saluted Ron Meyer, the VUE president and COO who has kept Universal Studio humming through successive, sometimes ruinous regimes. "Ron came in when it was owned by a Japanese appliance company that sold it to a liquor company that subsequently sold it to a water-treatment company," Wright joked. It was a laugh line that was completely accurate, and perfect—because Universal has a new future, and it starts with the night's honoree. This was Bob Wright's night. And this is really Bob Wright's NBC. It started last Wednesday.

Bednarski may be reached at