Exec finds signature deal for GE, his career

Peacock chairman and chief exec Bob Wright has always defied easy characterization.

On the surface, Hollywood’s newest mogul is a straitlaced, East Coast-based GE company man who rose through the ranks from financial services and cable systems to preside over NBC’s transformation after the network was acquired from RCA in 1986.

But Wright is in fact a rare contradiction in Hollywood: He’s a shrewd managerial suit trained in Jack Welchian financial discipline who also cultivates a discerning and sensitive nose for showbiz. His reputation as an adept delegator and nurturer of talent is well documented, but Wright is just as well known for his hands-on management of a sometimes unruly network business, where he presides over everything from talent deals and show selection to makeovers at his news nets.

But whatever Wright may lack in Hollywood insider cred, he more than makes up for in management street smarts; allies also cite his uncanny knack for entertainment industry nuance. In Wright’s world, allegiance to the lord of the bottom line has not ruled out placing big bets on programming or even riskier gambles like Telemundo.

Looking for stability

Wright, the longest-serving head of any network, had more than stars in his eyes as he masterminded NBC’s takeover of Vivendi Universal Entertainment. He saw that the path to stability for the network and growth for GE lay in content and the clout it provides.

After 17 years at the helm of NBC, Wright’s pursuit of VUE is a signature deal, not just for his career but for parent General Electric, as the industrial conglom transforms its portfolio to regain its clockwork reputation for double-digit earnings growth.

VUE will be the first big deal in boss Jeffrey Immelt’s tenure at the GE helm and an enormous vote of confidence for Wright, who tirelessly championed the deal to the financial community and corporate brass in recent months. Wright’s challenge is to apply the time-tested GE financial discipline to the newest media conglom on the block. It’s a path over which many peers — including Eisner, Bronfman and the Japanese — have stumbled.

The big question is whether Wright can impose TV biz-type discipline on the lower-margin film business.

Wright is no stranger to the high-stakes, ego-charged entertainment business. But having tamed a broadcast network and nurtured a few cable nets, his new challenge is far bigger.

Wrighting the ship

Surely the first few months following a deal will be about steadying a nervous ship. But NBC will have to move quickly to hit its aggressive numbers for first-year synergies — some $400 million-$500 million in new value from cost savings and new revenue streams. That equates to at least $40 million in cost cuts in the first full year; many believe corporate overhead at the studio could be a plump target for Wright’s knife.

The newly minted Hollywood mogul will also no doubt be looking to replicate Viacom’s knack for amassing cable networks and streamlining their operations. Sources said there is at least $30 million in potential savings by combining USA Networks, Sci Fi and Trio with Bravo and the news nets.

Venerable Universal has survived decades of upheaval under multiple owners that used the studio to transform their corporate complexion.

Will NBC succumb to the temptation of keeping all production inhouse and risk losing access to top talent (a la Disney) once it controls a studio? Can it truly use scale alone to tame the highly volatile film biz without cutting it to its core, a la Paramount? And what happens when one poor fiscal quarter or box office run invites the wrath of anxious GE shareholders? Aside from combining TV production efforts, is there a growth strategy beyond Dick Wolf?

There is no easy rule book for media vertical integration, or for what awaits Wright and his team once the due diligence is complete.

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