Imagining a Peacock Free From GE’s Shackles

“This is a business of balls. You want to have a Sumner or Rupert in charge, letting you take your shots.”

Last Updated: October 4, 2009 @ 6:38 PM

The idea of an NBC freed of General Electric has TV types giddy with anticipation, even as Peacock insiders begin pondering the inevitable layoffs and executive changes that a Comcast deal would almost surely bring.

Because here is Hollywood’s not-so-secret secret: Agents, producers and studio executives have long loathed GE’s control of NBC.

Wall Street may love the company’s bottom-line thinking, but showbiz types regularly bristle at the quarter-to-quarter mentality they believe has harmed NBC’s ability to keep up with other networks in the day-to-day business of network TV.

By contrast, while Comcast isn’t led by free-spending moneybags — "They’re very tight, too," says one veteran — there’s a sense that the gang in Pennsylvania knows how to handle Hollywood.

"This is a business of balls. You want to have a Sumner (Redstone) or Rupert (Murdoch) or Bob Iger in charge, letting you double down and take your shots and understanding that when you’re in the hole like NBC is, you spend more, not less," a senior executive at a major conglomerate told TheWrap. "You can’t Six Sigma your way out of fourth place."

(Six Sigma is General Electric’s hallowed management doctrine.)

A leading Hollywood agent echoed the executive’s remarks.

"It would be great for a company whose main interest lies in media to own and control NBC," he said. "For the past decade, it appears that the network was managed for short-term profits as opposed to long term value.  There doesn’t seem to be any appreciation from GE for the cultural value of NBC."

Others caution against expecting Comcast to suddenly start spending with the abandon of a Murdoch. The company’s conservative nature could be particularly tough pill to swallow for the film side of NBC U, as Variety noted in a story posted Thursday.

"But anyone would have to be better than GE," the executive at the conglomerate said.

And yet whatever the long-term benefits of Comcast control of NBC U, Hollywood also knows there’s plenty of pain in the offing as two more media companies consolidate their resources.

(RELATED: Other looming questions in Comcast-NBC U).

Still, the good news for rank and file is that there is less administrative overlap than there might be with, say, a purchase by Time Warner; though there could be overlap — or possible syneriges — between NBC U’s Oxygen and E!/Style, for example.

"If NBC had hooked up with TimeWarner, there would have been tremendous overlap and probably a bloodbath at NBC, since they’re the acquisition," said the industry executive. "But with Comcast, you’re really talking mostly about some cable distribution staff and maybe some sales staff. I have a hard time even getting to the idea of hundreds of layoffs."

What’s more, NBC is an incredibly lean company. "GE has squeezed them to the bone," one observer said. "I don’t know how much more you could cut."

And yet, there will be layoffs if a deal comes off. It will be painful for those impacted.

As the insider noted, distribution and sales would likely be hit harder than programming. It seems unlikely the new company would want to fire the programming team at Bravo and replace them with executives from, say, G4.

The real guessing game, which has already started in some quarters, is what will happen to senior executives at both companies.

The L.A. Times has already identified Comcast’s chief operating office, Steve Burke, as someone in line for a top position in a new venture, predicting much of the company would report to him.

That raises the question of what role NBC U head honcho Jeff Zucker might play.

"If I’m Zucker, I’m checking to make sure everything is OK with my golden parachute," one Hollywood wag quipped, noting that many in town are rooting for Zucker to exit the Peacock.

But Zucker is nothing if not a smart corporate warrior. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if he ends up remaining a key player in a new company, perhaps with more power than ever.

Another major player whose future would be in play the newly promoted chairman of NBC U Entertainment, Jeff Gaspin, in the event of a deal.

"Gaspin should be very excited about the notion of a deal," this person said. "He knows Comcast well. He’s been on the other side of the table with them (in cable carriage talks). And Comcast knows he’s a smart, savvy, quiet guy."

The future of top executives at Universal Pictures is another matter, as studio co-chairmen Marc Shmuger and David Linde were already perceived to be vulnerable because of the poor performance of the slate and declining DVDs.  

Their boss, Ron Meyer, has been one of the most stable figures in studio moguldom of recent decades.

And while Zucker might be too powerful to report to Burke, such a scenario would represent a promotion for Gaspin. A former VH1 programmer — he launched "Behind the Music" — Gaspin has spent the last few years quietly turning himself into a mini-mogul, learning the nuts and bolts of finances and overseeing a number of big deals.

On the broadcast side, there’s already joking around town about whether network veteran Ted Harbert — who’s excelled running Comcast cable networks such as E! — could end up with a big role at the NBC broadcast network. He once ran NBC’s studio, and had a  fruitful tenure heading ABC in the 1990s.

Harbert and Zucker were not the best of friends during their time together. However, plenty of Hollywood frenemies remain in business with each other if it makes sense to the bottom line.

One harsh reality of a deal is the impact it will have on NBC employees who’ve been at the company a while and are nearing the GE pension age of 60. Many had counted on that generous package, but if GE splits, their pension dreams could be dashed.