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GE grappling with its H’wood adventure

INDUSTRIAL TITAN THAT IT IS, General Electric has always seemed uncomfortable with the vagaries of the entertainment industry. Oh sure, owning NBC was OK, so long as the network minted money the way its parent churns out hardware.

But entering 2006, the company finds itself presiding over an unruly showbiz menagerie, contending with rumblings about being a tightwad after Viacom outbid it for DreamWorks, as well as with a molting Peacock and the unpredictability of 800-pound gorillas.

That “King Kong” has fallen short of gargantuan expectations represents one of the few setbacks associated with GE’s acquisition of Universal, which, with its choice cable holdings and solid studio performance, has helped soften the blow associated with NBC’s ratings downturn. In fact, the network’s lot would have looked considerably worse were it not obscured within a larger enterprise.

GE long resisted the siren song and uncertainties of the movie business, so how the company responds to disappointment should be intriguing. On the plus side, it’s not entirely clear how harshly losing out on DreamWorks will be judged in hindsight given the lack of clarity as to what, exactly, Viacom bought.

Nevertheless, GE has discovered that movie fauna can be harder to tame than the TV variety, as evidenced by what Time not-too-hyperbolically called the “wretchedly excessive” nature of Peter Jackson’s “Kong.” (A similar debate could easily ensue over the message-vs.-thriller quotient in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” but let’s sidestep that minefield for now.)

THERE’S NO DENYING JACKSON’S PASSION, but the director’s determination to release the film at a dulling three-hour-plus length was less an act of artistic integrity than creative self-indulgence. And even with Jackson’s well-deserved clout, it’s hard to imagine anyone saying, “Peter, I wouldn’t cut a frame from the first 70 minutes, before you see the ape. Oh, and Jack Black as a 1930s impresario? Very convincing!”

More immediate issues, meanwhile, surround NBC. The network is at a major crossroads, beginning with this week’s revamp restoring its Thursday lineup to a two-hour comedy block against a temporarily “Survivor”-free CBS. That will be followed by the Winter Olympics in February and the inevitable attempt to use that springboard (a Summer Games metaphor, actually) to vault into the spring.

NBC’s promos have drawn comparisons to the “Must-See TV” of old — flashing titles like “Cheers” and “Seinfeld.” “For 20 years, NBC has set the standard for quality comedy on Thursday night,” announcer guy intones. “Now, it’s time to welcome some new ones.” Unfortunately, as good as the U.S. version of “The Office” is, it’s also indicative of what’s currently plaguing comedy — namely, the struggle to wed creative merit with commercial viability.

Besides, living in the past won’t resonate with younger audiences; rather, NBC’s hoped-for turnaround will likely begin with dumb luck from unexpected sources, such as “Deal or No Deal,” the gameshow whose promising pre-Christmas run represents the kind of “What the hell?” mindset that catapulted ABC back into the thick of things. That said, network execs would be wise to avoid “The Apprentice” misstep again, betting the whole enchilada on a product with a limited shelf life.

THE GOOD NEWS FOR NBC UNIVERSAL is that the company possesses a dazzling array of assets, some of which (including USA and Sci Fi) offer huge returns if managed properly. The real issue is that everything with “NBC” in its name needs a little mouth-to-beak resuscitation, as Microsoft offloads MSNBC while sibling CNBC — which has often seemed every bit as rudderless — braces for competition from Fox News.

NBC has already made one very savvy move by plunging back into pro football, acquiring Sunday-evening games starting this fall, freeing up its development to shore up other nights. The deal also demonstrates a willingness to spend strategically, as GE has on the Olympics — a stomach-churning proposition for corporate suits that will be necessary going forward.

Surveying the kingdom, there’s plenty to be done, and it’s doable, but there’s also a long way to go before finding a light bulb at the end of the tunnel. In the interim, the best advice is to keep investing in the asset, lower expectations and resist the temptation to crow over puny victories until there’s truly cause to do some chest pounding.

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