It’s not exactly an extreme makeover, but Jeff Zucker has started putting his stamp on NBC Universal.
By officially tapping Burbank-based deputies Marc Graboff and Jeff Gaspin for expanded roles on Thursday (Daily Variety, Feb. 5), Zucker has put two key divisions, broadcasting and cable, into the hands of longtime lieutenants he knows and trusts. Zucker also demonstrated his penchant for rewarding loyalty.
He gave a big boost to Beth Comstock, a Bob Wright appointee who also has a long history with Zucker going back to their shared roots at NBC News.
Zucker declined an interview request, but his prepared statement hinted at his comfort level with the new team.
“I have worked with each of them for a long time and have complete confidence in their ability to lead these new divisions,” he said. “The goal is to have an organization that is simple, understandable and can move quickly in this new and complicated world.”
As expected, the realignment keeps Graboff as Zucker’s point man in Burbank. He remains prexy of NBC U TV West Coast but has now assumed oversight of NBC Entertainment (run by Kevin Reilly), NBC Universal TV Studio (headed by Angela Bromstad) and the NBC Agency (topped by John Miller).
Gaspin gets a shorter title — prexy, NBC U Cable and Digital Content — but a much bigger role at the conglom. He’ll control cable distribution as well as content, taking on the former duties of the departed David Zaslav.
Former GE marketing exec Comstock, once in charge of iVillage and a nebulous group of new digital ventures, adds oversight of ad sales and of NBC Universal’s entire digital strategy. As prexy of NBC U Integrated media, Comstock is at the fulcrum of the effort addressing two of the company’s deepest concerns: extracting as many ad dollars as possible in the upfront ad talks, where as much as $18 billion is committed to network and cable, as well as NBC U’s policy on YouTube.com.
In the new structure, each individual Peacock brand, from NBC to Sci Fi to USA, oversees its own digital business, reporting to Gaspin. Comstock takes on NBC Universal’s overall digital strategy, including the launch or acquisition of new businesses and negotiation on a companywide basis with digital players like Google’s YouTube.com.
With oversight of ad sales, Comstock is being reunited with another former GE exec, Mike Pilot. Both are relatively new to the TV ad sales biz.
That means Comstock and Pilot will be relying on the experience of NBC U’s top sales execs, including Ed Swindler, chief operating officer of the sales division, to make sure NBC Universal extracts a healthy share of the $18 billion committed to network and cable at the upfronts in May.
NBC is coming off two years of difficult ad sales after the net’s fall from first to fourth in the ratings, but this year, after a drought, it has some hit shows, including “Heroes.”
A strong scatter market, where advertisers place last-minute spots in shows late in the season, is an indicator that demand will be robust for the coming year.
“I think we’re well positioned,” Comstock said. “We have many opportunities for (marketers) to get their mix right with us.”
With oversight of digital, iVillage and research, Comstock said she will focus on offering packages that include new digital opportunities such as iVillage and streaming video, as well as integrations into shows like “Top Chef” on Bravo.
On the cable front, Gaspin said putting content and distribution under one exec will bolster NBC U’s cable strategy.
“It makes it much easier for us to go out and sell the services,” he said. “More cohesion between the two groups is of value.”
Gaspin said the distribution gig is much bigger than it would have been even five years ago. In addition to keeping cable and satellite operators happy, he’ll be dealing with a host of platforms — VOD, video broadband, wireless, electronic sell-through (read: iTunes).
“It’s both a challenge and an opportunity,” Gaspin said.
Exec plans to maintain his hands-off policy toward NBC Universal’s major cable assets, letting Bonnie Hammer (USA/Sci Fi) and Lauren Zalaznick (Bravo) run their businesses. Gaspin said he has no plans to name a single exec to oversee content for the cable group.
“I haven’t been day-to-day on creative for two years,” he said. “When you’ve got channels that are already running successfully, you don’t need a lot of intervention.”
Gaspin came to NBC U known for his work as a programmer. He was one of the execs who launched VH1’s 1990s signature skein, “Behind the Music.”
His early gigs at the Peacock, including running reality for NBC, focused on content. But Gaspin also has a business background, including an MBA — and he said he’s psyched to be flexing those muscles in his new role.
“I’ve finally got the job I spent 20 years training for,” he said.
As for Graboff, the West Coast topper has been dealing with Reilly and Bromstad for some time now, keeping a close eye on their respective budgets. Despite his new gig, the low-key exec said he isn’t about to become a programmer.
“I’m not all of a sudden going to become a creative exec,” he said. “I’m not going to be going to casting sessions, unless they ask me to.
“My job,” Graboff added, “is to provide cover for Kevin and Angela as they continue helping (NBC’s primetime) comeback.”
Graboff also said he’ll have a hand in helping NBC “revamp and realign fro the digital content age.”
Exec said while the Peacock is only a tiny portion of NBC Universal’s overall financial statement, “Perceptually, it’s very important. There’s nothing more important to the company.”
Graboff said Reilly “has done a good job of rebuilding the network, brick by brick. And Angela has done a great job helping to build that content.”
There’ve been reports in the past of clashes between Reilly and Bromstad, but Graboff said he doesn’t expect to spend his time mediating conflicts.
“I’d be lying if I said it was all sweetness and light every day. There are varying degrees of dysfunction between every network and its related studio,” he said. “But there doesn’t seem to be a correlation between how good that relationship is and the quality or success of the shows.”
Graboff also confirmed earlier word that he had begun negotiating a new deal with Reilly (Daily Variety, Feb. 5).
“We very, very much want Kevin to be here for as long as he wants to be here,” Graboff said. “To the extent that there have been rumors about his job security, that doesn’t help anybody. We have confidence in Kevin.”
That includes backing up Reilly’s strategy of patience with new shows, including the critically hailed but only OK-rated “Friday Night Lights” and “30 Rock.”
“I hope to God both of those come back,” Graboff said. “We’re not making an official announcement, but we’re big believers in both of those shows.”
Graboff also said he’ll be moving completely out of the business affairs loop, though he’ll still get involved in major renegotiations. It’s expected business affairs execs Beth Roberts and Rick Olshansky will divvy up Graboff’s duties.