Hollywood’s most interesting villain

GE would lose control of NBC under Comcast deal

Hollywood has always chafed against its corporate overseers and viewed them with suspicion. As Blofeld-style bad guys go, however, it will be hard to find another quite like General Electric.

GE is expected to retain a minority stake in NBC Universal under a proposed deal with Comcast, but assuming they come to terms, the deal would mark the official close of the industrial giant’s 23-year control of the network. And while no one will necessarily mourn that relationship’s end, let’s not forget the good times that GE inadvertently brought to light when we don’t have its “corporate weasels” to kick around anymore.

NBC’s “30 Rock” has particularly reveled in the notion of a fictional GE suit played by Alec Baldwin simultaneously supervising “East Coast television and microwave oven programming,” but that’s just a modern wrinkle on a storied history.

The public GE-NBC relationship got off to a rocky start when then-”Late Night” host David Letterman attempted to deliver a fruit basket to the new owner. The visit devolved into a “Roger & Me”-like piece that culminated with a GE functionary demonstrating what Letterman dubbed “the official General Electric corporate handshake” — an extended hand subsequently withdrawn without actually touching the other person.

Having GE among Hollywood’s ownership class injected all sorts of arcane terminology and colorful characters into the seemingly colorful-enough world of television.

There was “Six Sigma,” for example — described as “a highly disciplined process” meant to deliver “near-perfect products and services”; to most outsiders, Six Sigma sounded like one of those shadowy sects featured in “The Da Vinci Code.” Former NBC officials recall attending corporate retreats and finding little Six Sigma slogans affixed to their pillows.

GE’s far-flung industrial businesses often smelled slightly nefarious to those who occupy their days sifting through scripts filled with archvillains and underdog tales. According to a 2005 pie chart assembled by Free Press, GE’s revenues of $157 billion that year exceeded the combined total for other major network and studio owners — Time Warner, Disney, Vivendi, News Corp. and CBS/Viacom.

Hollywood is hardly a stranger to big money, but the image prevailed that NBC — the top-rated network through the 1990s, raking in profits from its juggernaut “Must-See TV” lineup — was a mere pimple on the butt of the GE elephant.

Then there was Jack Welch, the GE chairman who gained the nickname “Neutron Jack” in the ’80s for the thousands of employees he laid off — a reference derived from the neutron bomb, designed to leave buildings standing and eliminate only people. Fairly or not, budget-cutting took on a different hue with GE tightening the belt or wielding the ax.

Once in a great while GE’s larger interests stumbled into the network sphere, or vice versa.

Take “Atomic Train,” a 1999 NBC miniseries — for the May sweeps, yet — about a Denver-bound runaway train carrying nuclear waste. For reasons even one U.S. senator saw as fishy given GE’s ties to the nuclear-power industry, references to a cargo of “nuclear waste” were expunged at the last minute and changed to “hazardous materials.”

More recently, Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly seized on and distorted GE’s business dealings with Iran — and lambasted CEO Jeffrey Immelt — as blatant retaliation for the on-air abuse heaped upon him by MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann. Although O’Reilly refuses to say his rival’s name, this “The boss’s boss’s boss of my enemy is my enemy” strategy clearly hangs on GE’s ripeness as a target for populist harangues.

Asked about the pending Comcast deal’s timing, one insider speculated that GE was determined to retain NBC through its broadcast of the Beijing Olympics, seeing the event as a conduit into the lucrative Chinese market. Even without sipping conspiracy-flavored Kool-Aid, it was interesting to note this week’s Wall Street Journal piece about GE placing “a big and potentially risky bet on China’s aerospace industry” by “angling to grab business for a planned aircraft” intended to compete with Boeing.

Through the years Hollywood has frequently learned to appreciate the management devil one knows with the benefit of hindsight, but as corporate weasels go, GE looks destined to leave sizable shoes to fill.

At least until we discover a bit more about the Comcast corporate handshake.

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