Anklings on eve of merger cause uncertainty

This article was updated at 10:01 p.m.

The two front-runners in the race to lead the merged NBC Universal syndication operation now appear to be out of the running.

NBC Enterprises chief Ed Wilson resigned his post Thursday, while Universal Domestic TV prexy Steve Rosenberg had also apparently packed his bags, leaving uncertain who will oversee the combined division.

The departure of both execs comes on the eve of the Peacock’s merger with Universal, which is expected to close next month.

The chain of events began Thursday morning when Wilson, who had run NBC Enterprises for the past three years, said he wouldn’t renew his contract with the Peacock — and had decided to leave the syndication business altogether.

Wilson’s decision to leave was a surprise: The exec was expected to play a key role in the melding of NBCE and U’s syndie unit.

After months of speculation over whether Wilson or Universal Domestic TV prexy Rosenberg would head up the merged syndie division, insiders believed Wilson had the inside track.

But with Wilson’s departure, attention turned to Rosenberg, who was then considered a shoo-in to be named head of the combined department — until word leaked out that Rosenberg, too, was planning to leave.

But whether or not Rosenberg had actually left the building was still up in the air late Thursday. Rosenberg wasn’t talking, but sources said he had already been preparing to depart for at least a week, possibly after learning that he would be passed over for the top NBC U syndie job.

The story doesn’t end there. According to conflicting reports, Rosenberg may still wind up as a candidate for the NBC U syndie job. But NBC brass don’t seem to have begun devising their post-Wilson plans.

Wilson and NBC declined to elaborate on internal politics, while a Universal spokeswoman declined to comment. But syndie sources were abuzz that Wilson’s decision to leave may have thrown a wrench in the Peacock’s plans.

For his part, Wilson said he had simply tired of the syndie game and that with his contract up, he felt an itch to try something different.

“The end of a contract forces you to look at your life and the next three, four, five years,” he said. “I just decided maybe it was time for Ed Wilson to do something different.”

Wilson also dismissed talk that he decided to leave after learning his responsibilities would be cut as head of the NBC U syndie unit.

“My decision to leave was not affected by what my role was going to be there,” he said. “These guys have been incredibly good to me, and I value my friendship and relationships with the people at NBC.”

Under Wilson’s oversight, besides syndication NBC Enterprises also handled merchandising, licensing and international sales.

“Ed has done a terrific job creating and growing NBC Enterprises for us,” said Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment, News and Cable. “He has now decided the time is right to pursue other opportunities. I am grateful for his contributions and we wish him the best in the future.”

Wilson’s departure comes just months before the launch of “The Jane Pauley Show,” which the Peacock hopes to turn into its first homegrown firstrun hit. Exec also recently sold “Fear Factor” into off-net syndication, while “Access Hollywood,” which NBC fully acquired fairly recently, continues to post solid numbers.

But in launching the syndie arm, Wilson has also had a difficult time coming up with a hit. Strips such as “The John Walsh Show” and “The Other Half” failed to catch fire, leaving some in the industry to question NBCE’s batting average.

“People will say what they’re going to say; I don’t care,” Wilson said. “I don’t regret anything we’ve done over here.”

Prior to joining the Peacock in September 2000, he had served as prexy-chief operating officer at CBS Enterprises.

Wilson helped launch CBS’ syndie operations in 1996 after the Eye acquired his MaXam Entertainment. He took the role of president of CBS Enterprises and Eyemark Entertainment, where he launched series including “Martha Stewart Living” and sold off-net runs of “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

Exec’s other credits include a stint at Columbia TriStar TV Distribution. Wilson said he hadn’t yet plotted his next move.

“I don’t know today; I might know in a week or two,” he said.

Rosenberg, meanwhile, has run Universal’s syndie operations since January 1998 — soon after Barry Diller acquired U’s TV properties and renamed them Studios USA.

Rosenberg has been with Universal since 1986, when he joined as a Northeast office sales exec.

(Josef Adalian contributed to this report.)

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