Its NBC Universal efforts make it look clueless

The Comcast gang has earned a reputation as solid businessmen and straight shooters — grown-ups in a business filled with juvenile behavior and fragile egos.

Thus far, however, the Philadelphia-based cable giant — for which “30 Rock” has provided the amusing alter ego Kabletown — is off to a clumsy kickoff in assuming control of NBC Universal, appearing either oblivious to the complications of absorbing such a sprawling entity or, worse, indifferent to the collateral damage.

NBC U has deficiencies in various key areas, but the company has enjoyed enough success — particularly in cable — to create well-regarded stars within its executive ranks. Keeping them all happy — along with their new corporate Comcast siblings — was inevitably going to present a thorny challenge.

Even allowing for low expectations on that front, though, Comcast has managed to limbo under the bar. Rumors leaked about which execs are in and out (gee, whoever heard of people in Hollywood gossiping?) and were then left to uncomfortably fester.

All of this has occurred, moreover, before the company formally wins regulatory approval, making you wonder why such a frenzied rush.

Indeed, as Variety reported, whatever structure gets unveiled now, additional tinkering will likely be required once the deal closes. Fostering uncertainty heading into development season, meanwhile, only fuels instability at a network whose principal selling point — “You want time periods? Hey, we got plenty to fill!” — might also cause agents to think twice about bringing premium pitches there.

With a looming presidential race that should suck considerable oxygen out of the media atmosphere in fall 2012, perhaps the feeling was NBC can’t afford to squander preparation for next season while sorting out what names to emboss on business cards. Nevertheless, things certainly look chaotic right now.

Granted, it’s easy to say showbiz execs are well compensated and needn’t cry when given the inevitable shove into “independent production deal.” To paraphrase “The Godfather, Part II,” this is the life they’ve chosen.

Still, that doesn’t mean corporate masters have to live down to stereotypes about unfeeling conglomerates — or that treating their own employees shabbily won’t be noticed by the creative community NBC needs to win over.

To be fair, NBC’s new lineup hasn’t done much to merit lavish holiday bashes. Precious little has worked, and the few programs that did exhibit initial promise — most notably “The Event,” illustrating how you can’t always judge a serialized show’s durability by its pilot — haven’t done much to maintain that enthusiasm.

Comcast looked decisive in quickly moving to replace NBC U CEO Jeff Zucker and designating Steve Burke as his replacement. A change was necessary, if only to eliminate perceptions of business as usual and enable new management to start fresh.

Yet how the company approaches his subordinates is another matter — and does potentially speak volumes about the new bosses.

NBC Universal TV Entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin was promoted a mere 16 months ago to try bringing order and direction to NBC Entertainment, after a protracted stretch of tumult and mismanagement. If he became the odd man out, so be it, but let’s not forget the mess he inherited.

That includes NBC’s latenight brouhaha, by the way, where Gaspin practically qualifies as the Barack Obama of network television: left to clean up after an Ivy League predecessor — in this case, Harvard alum Zucker.

In May, I wrote approvingly about Comcast leadership’s potential to emerge as heroic saviors at NBC, albeit with this disclaimer: “While management generally appears well prepared, the team might need a little work, in style if not substance, to get ready for its close-up.”

Based on various still-unconfirmed news accounts, Comcast seems to be redeploying its personnel wisely enough. Burke’s moves so far include making a smart outside hire in the anticipated appointment of former Showtime entertainment prexy Robert Greenblatt, while realigning existing staffs from both companies in a manner that should capitalize on their talents — provided, that is, they can be inspired to work cohesively, or at least play nice together.

Now if the new chiefs can stop looking callous — or clueless about the machinations of Hollywood and vagaries of the network TV calendar — the folks at Kabletown might appear truly on track and less unplugged.

brian.lowry@variety.com

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