GE topper says said the network business is troubled

Jeff Immelt paid a visit to CNBC headquarters on Tuesday, and it wasn’t to appear on “Squawk Box.”

The GE topper makes periodic visits to all areas of the NBC Universal empire, but this employees-only town hall took on additional meaning in light of the coming layoffs across the company.

Immelt, who was joined by NBC U topper Bob Wright and TV prexy Jeff Zucker, said the network business is troubled, and it’s a problem that restoring the net to No. 1 status can’t fix.

“My assumption is that Bob and Jeff and team will be No. 1 again,” Immelt said. But the way the network business is shrinking, in both ratings and ad dollars, “the business that’s No. 1 will make 40% less than we did when we were No. 1.”

To fill the gap and return to double-digit profit growth, the company is looking toward digital and to its diverse news networks, which execs are examining for operating efficiencies.

“I can’t apologize for what we have to do or where we have to go,” he said. “You’ve got to look at areas like news with the number of acquisitions that we’ve done and think about running it without hurting content but running the backrooms like we’d run any other business in GE.”

The upside for CNBC is that its cuts appear to be primarily limited to consolidation of bureaus with NBC stations. The net is keeping its modern facility in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., and doesn’t have much high-priced on-air talent short of Maria Bartiromo.

With ratings on the upswing, Immelt said he feels the network is better positioned to take on Roger Ailes’ planned entry into business news, Fox Business Channel, than it was last year.

“I think we’re ready for Fox if they decide to come,” he said. “And if it happens, you have to have the attitude of ‘bring it on.’ “

The net is investing heavily in the new CNBC.com, which is being re-launched in December as a competitor to CBS’ MarketWatch and other financial news sites.

Despite the challenges, Immelt said his industrial conglom is committed to NBC Universal.

“This is a very important business for GE,” he said. “A business we will stay in, and a business we need to continue to be good at when I look at the future of where the company is going.”

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