01 November 2009

What Happened To NBC?

Detroit Examiner

Bob Wright, the former Chairman and CEO of NBC Universal spoke with FOX Business Network’s Liz Claman about the TV network that went from stellar to cellar.

Bob Wright was named president and CEO of NBC in 1986, in February 2007, Wright, after 21 years, was succeeded by Jeff Zucker.

Under Bob Wright’s leadership, NBC was transformed from a broadcast network into a global media powerhouse, leading the way in TV programming, station ownership, and television production. In 1986, Wright's first year at NBC, the network had revenues of $2.6 billion, by 2006, his last full year at the helm, company revenues had grown to $16.2 billion. To say Bob Wright was a good businessman would be an understatement.

Among his achievements, Wright diversified NBC by launching cable networks CNBC and MSNBC. He also acquired entertainment cable network Bravo and Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo, before orchestrating the VUE acquisition, which added to NBC the Universal Pictures film studio, Universal theme parks, and a collection of fast-growing cable networks such as USA Network and SCI FI Network (now called Syfy).

After his grandson was diagnosed with autism in 2004, Bob Wright and his wife, Suzanne, established a foundation called Autism Speaks, which is now the largest organization representing families and people with autism in the U.S. with affiliates in the U.K. and Canada.

He spoke with FOX Business Network’s Liz Claman about Autism Speaks and Liz took the opportunity to ask about what was going on at NBC now.

Claman: “Got to get to the Comcast/NBC story, we hear Comcast for $6 billion in cash and a couple of networks like E! Entertainment and Golf Channel would get operating control of NBC. How for $6 billion and two networks do they get operating control of a network that the price is valued at $30 to $35 billion?”

Wright: The answer is you have to have a minimal view of this. This is a depressed time for media. NBC Universal value is lower today than three or four years ago.

Claman: But I look at this and I think is now really the time?

Wright: I don’t think an IPO is such an attractive proposition right in this market either. And I’m sure the French are very sophisticated so they’re not going to miss that.

Claman: So not the right time for an IPO? You know when you ran NBC, it was number 1, you had must see TV, here’s what one analyst said to me, the NBC Empire has fallen apart since Bob Wright left. Looking through different lens now, what went wrong in the last couple of years?

Wright: I think it’s been a tougher time for broadcasting. We’re not on a roll; we haven’t been on a roll on the entertainment side where we generate so much money.

Claman: Jay Leno, that’s not doing well. Was that a good bet?

Wright: It’s a conservative position. Jay is an extremely well-recognized person. He also happens to work harder than about anybody in television. Good for your 47, 48 weeks a year on the air. That’s like local news. So over time you know he’s there and there at 10:00. Not like where is he this week? Is he coming back?

Claman: But Law and Order SVU did better in that 10 o’clock time slot.

Wright: But they don’t do that many episodes. He does his episodes that go for 48 weeks. It’s going to -- you make a decision like that, Liz, you have to be, have to have a long time view. When News Corporation went into this business, you have to have a long point of view.

Claman: They do?

Wright: It’s a decision with a long point of view. You know, and Jay has talent and ability to produce the show that is going to work and they’ll have to wait a while.

That is a lot better way to put it than “He will do better during reruns.” Jeff Zucker started failing even before he was promoted to CEO at NBC Universal. Following the merger with French media empire Vivendi Universal, he was promoted to president of its Television Group in May 2004. During Zucker's tenure, NBC slid from first place to fourth place in the ratings. Shows that Zucker championed such as Father of the Pride and the Friends spinoff Joey were considered failures.

Yet he was then promoted to Chief Executive Officer of NBC in 2005 and President and CEO of NBC Universal in 2007.

NBC needs to admit it was a mistake putting Conan O’Brien in as the host of the Tonight Show and fix the problem. While Jay Leno may do well in the long haul, when you are losing money and in the ratings cellar you should be looking for a quicker solution.

Who ever ends up with NBC, the future is bright, there is no way to go but up from here.

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