Featured Player: Beth Comstock

When NBC Universal shook up its exec suite in December, one name seemed to come from out of the blue: Beth Comstock.

After a long career in public relations, Comstock had risen to become top communications consigliere to NBC U topper Bob Wright, but left seven years ago for a corporate gig at parent GE, where she ended up the conglom’s first chief marketing officer in 20 years and a favorite of CEO Jeffrey Immelt.

Now she was returning to NBC U with a title (prexy of digital media and market development) that put her on par with TV topper Jeff Zucker and studio chief Ron Meyer, but with a portfolio of assets so thin it invited speculation.

Here was a president of digital media with no oversight over NBC U’s most significant digital asset, its 50% stake in MSNBC.com.

Three months later, NBC announced its $600 million acquisition of iVillage, the pioneering women’s site that would form the backbone of a digital distribution strategy for TV and film. The deal had been on the drawing board before Comstock arrived, but it showed that NBC U had much more in mind than throwing another president at the problem, and explained why she would step back into media to take the job.

Immelt has high hopes that NBC U will be able to take advantage of new digital markets to bring GE-sized growth to its media division. NBC made $100 million from digital initiatives in 2005 and expects to make $200 million this year, a target that includes iVillage.

The hitch: No one has the foggiest idea which business models will work or what the brave new world of digital distribution will look like.

Wright needed one person to keep both eyes on it and nothing else. Enter Comstock.

“The way we’ve positioned it is between the TV and film unit, to have a unified vision,” Comstock says of her new domain. “This is important to Bob (Wright) and the folks at GE — this is our growth platform.”

Her first task is substantial: to integrate iVillage into the conglom’s hodgepodge of digital media assets, including the Web sites for all its various cable channels and properties, NBC’s mobile initiatives, and content businesses like the “Today” show and the network, which will supply video to the site.

Also on Comstock’s plate are NBC’s substantial deals with iTunes and defining a strategy behind free video: how to profit from it and when to pull — or seed — the Web with content with viral appeal like SNL’s “Lazy Sunday.”

Then there’s film and the morass of piracy, distribution windows and DVD sales that complicate any plan to weave studio product into a digital distribution scheme.

In order to navigate all this, Comstock will have to embrace the matrix of dotted reporting lines so beloved at parent GE. None of GE’s content businesses report to her — including the myriad Web sites for channels like Bravo and Sci Fi — so her success will depend on pulling these disparate units together — then getting credit for the results.

She’d like to use “Today” content for iVillage, but that requires persuading news prexy Steve Capus, just as “Project Runway” is the purview of Jeff Gaspin and “The Office” that of Kevin Reilly — all three of whom report to Zucker.

Comstock’s background in corporate PR actually helps, in that she knows all the players and is by many accounts well-liked and respected.

The job at GE was rife with similar challenges. The marketing assignment, dubbed “Imagination Breakthroughs,” spanned GE’s disparate units from aircraft engines to healthcare to come up with new ideas that would generate $50 million to $100 million per unit of new coin over three years.

Across GE, “Imagination Breakthroughs” booked $3 billion in 2005.

Immelt “took a risk on me,” she says. “I wasn’t trained in marketing, but GE was a great training ground for me. I got a front-row seat to multinational business in a dozen different industries.”

“She thinks huge and isn’t afraid to take risks,” says Oxygen PR chief Kassie Cantor, who worked for Comstock at NBC when she had the top PR job.

The job is all about thinking big. The media biz is full of former producers — Jeff Zucker, Andy Lack, Howard Stringer — who end up running the store, but very few who jumped from communications to an operating role.

“This is about imagining what’s possible,” Comstock says. “I’ve been in positions where I’ve been asked to lead change, and I think I’m good at change.”

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