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Wright: GE books can withstand scrutiny

CEO sez accounting is 'opaque'; Sassa on secret mission

As Wall Street continues to take corporations to task for questionable accounting practices, GE vice chairman-executive officer Bob Wright said he’s “very confident” the conglom would withstand close scrutiny of how it reports its revenues, costs and profits.

But Wright, who said he’s “in the middle” of that issue at the company right now, said there’s no easy way to prove it, given the “opaque” nature of accounting.

“There really aren’t any such things as simple public companies,” Wright told reporters Wednesday at the Television Critics Assn. Press tour.

“We’ve got two things going on here,” he said. “We have bad people who have clearly done things that are reprehensible and should and will go to jail. But you’ve got a zillion other people out here that aren’t doing things but, on the other hand, couldn’t stand up here and explain simplistically how everything they do works from an accounting standpoint.”

That said, Wright stressed that he and his GE colleagues have “tried to take everything we do and make it transparent. It just can’t be done.”

Feeling guilty

Wright, who also serves as chairman-CEO of NBC, also expressed frustration at the major drop in GE’s stock price over the past year.

The exec said he felt “guilt” over how the company’s declining stock price has affected employees’ 401(k)s.

However, Wright said the net performed as well as any business at GE, and better than most of them.

“NBC in the GE world has been a very strong performer in an extremely difficult economic period,” he said. “That allowed us the ability to buy Telemundo. And it’s allowed us to make other investments, like KNTV in San Francisco.”

Also at the Peacock, Wright confirmed NBC and Pax had finished presenting their arguments in their ongoing arbitration; the case has now gone to a senior federal judge, who is expected to rule in the coming months.

Pax filed suit in December, claiming NBC violated its contract with the company by purchasing Telemundo, which owns stations in many of the same major markets as Pax. That would make it impossible for NBC to buy Pax under current FCC rules.

Under their current arrangement, NBC owns 32% of Pax, with an option through 2009 to buy the rest.

“This was about Bud (Paxson) wanting a deal undone so he can find another buyer,” Wright said.

The exec said he expects the judge to rule that the disagreement is a commercial dispute between two parties, upholding the pact in place.

Also at the NBC session Wednesday:

  • Wright weighed in on personal video recorders, confessing he loves the technology. “I’m a big TiVo user,” he said. “There’s plenty of time to adapt to this issue.”

    Although execs like Jamie Kellner have expressed concern over the ability to zap through commercials on PVRs, Wright said he believes the devices may actually help increase TV viewing. (NBC, along with other media entities, is an investor in TiVo.)

    “It makes viewing shows that you can’t watch when they’re originally aired more attractive than VCRs do,” he said.

    Still, the exec said TV execs must learn from the challenges faced by the music industry.

    “If we really had broadband, we’d have the same problem,” Wright said. “But because it takes so long to download, it’s not a problem for us. I do hope they develop IP protection.”

  • Scott Sassa remains in the NBC fold and is working closely with Wright and network prexy Andrew Lack on what Wright quipped was a “top-secret project.”

    Wright said Sassa was working on a project involving some of NBC’s major investments; it’s believed his charge involves finding a way to integrate the Peacock’s far-ranging interests. He also left the door open for Sassa to break ties with the net.

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