Exec takes on conglom's most challenged assets

Amid the revolving door of top TV execs at NBC Universal, there’s been one constant: the steady rise of Jeff Gaspin.

Gaspin added the final pieces of the Peacock’s TV empire to his domain on Monday, when he was named chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment.

He already oversaw the most prosperous of NBC U’s TV units — including the cable channels, cable production studio and the domestic syndication wing — in his previous role as prexy and chief operating officer of Universal TV Group. Now, he’s taking on its most challenged assets, the NBC broadcast net and Universal Media Studios production arm.

Gaspin’s success in vastly expanding NBC U’s cable biz during the past seven years makes him up to the task of leading a turnaround at NBC, friends and colleagues say.

“Jeff knows the network business inside and out,” said Lauren Zalaznick, prexy of NBC U Women & Lifestyle Entertainment Networks, who first worked with Gaspin at VH1 in the mid-1990s. “He has the brain for it, and he has the gut for it.”

Stylistically, insiders say Gaspin is very different than Ben Silverman, whose departure as NBC Entertainment co-chairman for a production pact with Barry Diller’s InterActiveCorp paved the way for Gaspin’s promotion to the uber-TV exec spot.

For starters, Gaspin grew up as an exec in the NBC ranks, starting out in the finance department for the O&O stations in 1984, shortly after the Queens native left NYU with his MBA in tow. He’s known for exuding a sense of calm, in good times and bad, and for being somewhat reserved as a manager.

“Jeff is a good listener. He’s got his own set of processes for accumulating information, processing that information and making strategic decisions,” Zalaznick said. “It’s not that he doesn’t have strong opinions, but when you’re trying to come to a big decision, he doesn’t need to put his opinion out there before he even shakes your hand.”

Gaspin spent a few years in finance for the O&Os — in one of the early glimmers of his leadership potential, he was tapped to lead a seminar on how to spot fraudulent billing practices for other O&O staffers — before shifting into production finance for Gotham-based NBC shows including “Late Night With David Letterman” and “Saturday Night Live.”

His big leap from numbers to programming came in 1988, when he segued into the news division as veep of programming and development. Then-NBC News prexy Michael Gartner was impressed at his genuine affection for television. During his five years in the news wing, he helped develop and launch “Dateline NBC,” and he also befriended another rising exec star, Jeff Zucker.

Gaspin left the Peacock in 1993 to work as a producer and spent nearly a year working with Diller, who was then chairman of QVC, on an entertainment-oriented home shopping channel that never got off the ground. In 1996 he landed as exec veep of programming and production at VH1, where he spearheaded the musicvid channel’s makeover with nonscripted skeins like “Behind the Music.” Zalaznick served as his senior veep.

Zucker recruited Gaspin back to NBC in early 2001 after Zucker was upped from “Today” exec producer to NBC Entertainment prexy. By the end of 2002, Zucker tapped Gaspin to take charge of the Peacock’s newly acquired cabler, Bravo, where Gaspin began his hot streak on the cable side.

It’s no secret that some years ago, Gaspin had his eye on the top programming job at NBC; he was seen as a candidate for the gig that went to Kevin Reilly (who was replaced in 2007 by Silverman and is now entertainment prexy at Fox) when Zucker was promoted in 2003. But the experience of building the cable group — through the acquisition of Oxygen and launch of the Sleuth, Chiller and Universal HD digital channels — has made Gaspin a better all-around exec, in his view.

“I realized a few years ago I could no longer go back to just doing the network,” Gaspin told Daily Variety. “For me the role of portfolio manager was a much better use of the experience that I’ve gained over the last 25 years. I’ve always wanted to be part of the broadcast business, and now it makes sense to have a role in a much broader way.”

Gaspin’s appointment consolidates the management of all of NBC Universal’s domestic TV operations (the international side reports separately to London-based NBC U Intl. prexy Peter Smith and U international prexy David Kosse), giving him a 360° view at a time of great upheaval for the media biz overall. Gaspin said he has no illusions about the uphill climb ahead for NBC in particular and broadcasting in general.

“We have to do better” at NBC, Gaspin said. “We have our bright spots, but we need more of them. … Combining all of our TV into one (management structure) allows us to look at the bigger picture and to make decisions that benefit the company as a whole.”

Gaspin said his initial focus in the new, bigger job will be NBC — particularly given the importance of “The Jay Leno Show” launch in September. He voiced his support for the creative team of Angela Bromstad, primetime entertainment prexy for NBC and Universal Media Studios, and Paul Telegdy, exec veep of alternative programming for NBC/UMS.

“We’re not satisfied with being at No. 4 … Because I have a creative background as well as a business one, I’ll spend some time with Angela, Paul and the creative team, as well as John (Miller) and Adam (Stotsky) in marketing,” Gaspin said.

With all of NBC’s entertainment outlets now under him, Gaspin said it will be easier to make decisions at the broadcast network based on what sort of impact it may have across the conglom.

“As NBC decides what shows they want to put on their schedule, they should think about which ones would have a good backend ancillary value for one of our cable networks,” he said. “You’ll start seeing a little more consideration for what the value for a particular show will be at NBC Universal.”

Beyond the addition of NBC chairman Marc Graboff, Gaspin’s direct reports will continue to include Zalaznick and Bonnie Hammer, prexy of NBC U Cable Entertainment and Universal Cable Prods., as well as NBC U Domestic TV Distribution prexy Barry Wallach; NBC U TV Networks Distribution prexy Bridget Baker; Telemundo president Don Browne; and digital/affiliate distribution and content strategy topper J.B. Perrette.

(Michael Schneider contributed to this report.)

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