NBC Universal in Desperate Need of Its Next Hit

A red flag is flying over the executive suites atop the lot’s black tower.

Last Updated: July 20, 2009 @ 5:49 PM
 

When it gets parched in Los Angeles the weather service issues a “red-flag” warning to indicate that the risk of fire is high.

 

A red flag is flying over the entertainment industry at this point, but nowhere is it more visible than atop the black tower at NBC Universal, where the television network and the film studio have been very dry indeed.

Ben Silverman remains on the job despite NBC’s continued failure. According to sources, he just returned after being absent for four weeks, and is widely perceived to be lining up his next gig.

Those were some lousy second-quarter numbers that NBC Universal reported last Friday. With parent company GE under pressure with its own lousy numbers, there has been lots of speculation in the media and in Hollywood commissaries about possible shakeups at the company.

 

Two recent stories in the New York Post about Universal in particular have led some high-level insiders to wonder whether their boss, NBC Universal Chairman Jeff Zucker, could have planted some rumors himself — presumably to make it clear to his bosses at GE that those who deserve to walk the plank (not him, mind you) are trussed and ready.

 

Similar speculation about Zucker and the Post has sloshed around in the blogosphere before. An NBC Universal spokeswoman dismisses the idea that Zucker had a hand in the reports as “patently absurd.”

 

Based on my experience with my own sources, guesswork about who is behind a story is often wrong. But the internal speculation reveals a toxicity in the environment at the company these days.

 

And a top NBC Uni executive observes with some bitterness that the bosses haven’t done much to quell these reports. “They allow rumors to gestate,” he says. And to him, some of these recent Post stories seem to follow a pattern.

 

Specifically, there was the case of Beth Comstock, formerly the head of NBC Universal digital operations. In April 2007, the Post quoted sources close to NBC saying that Comstock was “quickly losing credibility and respect within the organization.”

 

In September 2007, the paper was back with a report that Comstock’s tenure at the network was “coming to an end.” Her departure wasn’t announced until March 2008 but by the time she was moved out of the job, my insider says, “everybody knew she was totally compromised.”

 

That reminded me of another Post report from in November 2008 involving Katherine Pope, then president of the NBC Universal television-production studio.

 

Much-criticized NBC Co-Chairman Ben Silverman wasn’t entirely to blame for the network’s lousy performance, according to a network source, because Pope “took her eye off the ball.”

 

So somehow the executive who ran the production studio was 1) newsworthy) and 2) more culpable than Silverman, who had told his boss’ boss — GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt — to judge him on the performance of such shows as "Knight Rider" and "Kath & Kim" — and failed according to his own criteria.

 

Read Kim Masters’ entire article at The Daily Beast.