Studio cuts 500 staffers worldwide

NBC Universal is downsizing its workforce by 500 staffers worldwide — the latest move in the Peacock’s plan to slice $500 million out of its 2009 budget.

This week’s axings, which actually started earlier this week, when NBC let go of at least 30 network sales staffers, rep 3% of the conglom’s workforce. Every division was affected, including broadcast, cable, syndication, features and parks; most laid-off employees were informed Thursday, with more to be told in the coming days.

The Peacock’s news divisions were hit particularly hard by Thursday’s cuts. A specific number wasn’t available (although it’s believed to be at least 30), but a spokesman admitted that the NBC News axings exceeded the 3% overall rate. Targeted staffers will be gone by January.

Cuts will be made through layoffs, buyouts, early retirements and attrition, and they come as part of a flurry of industrywide layoffs this week — including the 850 positions slashed Thursday at Viacom.

On the news side, an NBC U insider said the cuts affected both international and domestic news staffs and that they were fairly evenly spread across the programming grid. They include some in the executive ranks, though an exact number was not available.

Not surprisingly, bureau operations suffered a trimming. Longtime Dallas correspondent Don Teague was jettisoned, while cuts in the L.A. office, reportedly of as many as seven staffers, include correspondent and “Dateline” contributor John Larson as well as Mark Mullen, recently returned from a stint heading the Beijing bureau during the Olympics. Special-events bureau chief Heather Allan, a 30-plus-year Peacock vet who also contributed to the net’s record-breaking Olympics coverage, was also let go.

On the cable news side, one insider said that surging MSNBC was “relatively unscathed” by the sackings. Insiders dismissed earlier reports that as many as 80 staffers had been cut at CNBC, allowing that “several dozen” had been let go instead.

The most senior CNBCer to be cut was longform programming veep Josh Howard, whose soon-to-expire contract was not renewed. Also at the channel, Donny Deutsch-hosted talker “The Big Idea” has been put on hiatus.

The bright spots in NBC Universal’s TV stable, the entertainment cable outlets such as Bravo and USA, appear to have come out of the cuts mostly unscathed. Over at NBC Entertainment, a handful of staffers were let go, including some in publicity.

At Universal Pictures, some 70 people were cut worldwide — including staffers at Focus Features.

In a letter to staffers, studio toppers Marc Shmuger and David Linde said cutbacks were due to “the challenges presented by the struggling economy” and that U will pull the trigger on cost-saving measures that include “scaling back on travel, overtime, consultants, premieres, conferences, newspaper marketing and general administrative costs.”

NBC Universal declined comment on Thursday’s cuts.

The NBC U layoffs aren’t a complete surprise: Conglom topper Jeff Zucker announced via an October memo that the company would slash its overall budget by 3%, or $500 million. Department heads were given their own jurisdiction over how to make those slices.

Although the 3% workforce cut this week is said to be coincidental to that overall 3% budget reduction, Zucker at the time said job eliminations would be a part of that belt-tightening, along with discretionary spending, such as travel and entertainment and promotion expenses.

Memo came just days after NBC Universal’s earnings report showed a 10% increase in operating profit at the conglom. But Zucker has said that given the economic downturn, NBC U needed to take precautionary steps.

“We are living in a time of unprecedented economic challenges, and it is increasingly clear that the worldwide economic slowdown will continue into next year,” he wrote. “The leadership team of the company agrees that we must take steps now to prepare for these new economic realities. As a result, all of our business leaders are being asked to cut their spending projections for 2009.”

(Marc Graser contributed to this report.)

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