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Will NBC fly with Pilot?

Show business outsider could provide just the boost that network needs

Last week, GE tapped Michael Pilot, CEO of its equipment finance unit, to become head of ad sales — a job that puts him in control of a substantial portion of national TV ad inventory on both broadcast and cable.

The move thrusts a media outsider into a famously clubby business, where billion-dollar ad deals are closed on a handshake and many execs have known one another since they started out on the ground floor of agencies.

But Pilot may be the shot of adrenalin that NBC needed.

While sales at the other broadcast nets are directed by ad-industry lifers, some say the relationships are overrated and traditions are increasingly a hindrance in a world of TiVo, iTunes, Slingbox and YouTube. As for Pilot’s lack of background, one media buyer says it’s irrelevant: Great shows sell themselves.

Pilot, 44, is undergoing a crash course in the media, as well as in the culture of NBC U. Still, he thinks skills he picked up in 22 years at GE aren’t irrelevant to the task ahead.

“I am new to media but not new to sales, and there are things about sales that do transfer from industry to industry,” Pilot tells Variety. “It’s not that you want to see GE culture come in and overwhelm the media culture of NBC. You want to take what is good about the process and import it.”

Pilot is in control of sales at NBC, Telemundo, USA, Bravo,

Sci Fi and MSNBC, with a plan to “bring them to market as a portfolio.” That means he will have a big impact on the broadcast and cable upfront talks when they begin next spring.

Ad sales is the main revenue-driver for NBC U, and the one most under challenge by new technologies and changing consumer habits. In this context, having no background in media might even be a key asset.

“We’re in a period of change, and I think coming in and looking at things, bringing in new ideas, bringing new strategies will allow us to think differently,” says NBC U TV topper Jeff Zucker, to whom Pilot will report.

Zucker made emerging digital businesses the theme at NBC’s May upfront sales presentation, but the perception on Madison Avenue was that the network sales operation lagged others in terms of giving advertisers high-value opportunities beyond the 30-second spot.

A study of agencies and hundreds of top advertisers conducted by media analyst Jack Myers found that NBC ranked lower than the other nets in terms of perceived value of “non-traditional ad opportunities.”

“There was the perception that the broadcast network didn’t embrace the digital age and wasn’t up to par with the other networks,” Myers says.

That, he says, is a strong argument for letting an outsider have a crack at the problem.

“I think it’s pretty inspired,” he says. “It’s an acknowledgement that the ad business needs to break away from that old-boy mentality and drill down into some hard analysis of how it’s going to grow beyond the 2%-3% that everyone is predicting.”

The good news for Pilot is that for the first time in three years, NBC’s narrative is one of growth, not decline. Two years ago, NBC suffered a near billion-dollar decline in ad dollars when it went from first to fourth place in the ratings. Last spring it was able to at least stanch the bleeding.

But with “Heroes” a hit, “Sunday Night Football” in kick mode and a rejuvenated Thursday lineup of comedies, the ratings race looks to be far closer than last season. If ratings hold, NBC could enter the upfronts with franchises with significant upside, a huge reversal from the past two years.

“NBC has turned a corner this year and the money will follow the eyeballs and the good shows,” says Andy Donchin, director of national broadcast at media buying firm Carat USA.

Of course, it’s not going to be easy. In the short term, Pilot has already had to endure his share of Jack Donaghy jokes.

On NBC’s “30 Rock,” Alec Baldwin plays Donaghy, a GE exec who invented the fictional three-way “trivection” microwave oven, who’s sent to the network to bring “a third heat” to a latenight sketchcom on the National Broadcasting System. One recent bit of dialogue: “Do you know why Jack Welch is the greatest leader since the Pharaohs?”

And Pilot is aware that he’s not the first to move from the Connecticut-based GE to NBC; he joins a wave of imports working to apply the conglom’s process-oriented ways to media.

Bob Wright, then head of GE’s plastics division, got off to a shaky start when he was tapped by Welch to replace network legend Grant Tinker in 1986.

“They didn’t know why you had to pay so much for stars or so much for anchors when anyone could do the job,” says former NBC News prexy Laurence Grossman, who feuded with Welch and left the network two years later.

Over the course of two decades, Wright has earned high marks for helping the network attain its “Must-See” heights, getting into cable and buying a Hollywood studio.

But other GE stars have made their way to 30 Rock, only to scurry back with less fanfare.

A GE financial wiz, former GE Capital exec Deborah Reif was named president of NBC U Digital Media in 2004. A year later she returned to GE, to be replaced at NBC by Beth Comstock, a GE exec who had a long background at NBC, and could better navigate its corridors.

Pilot says his first 30 to 60 days on the job will be about learning the business, getting to know NBC U’s sales force and meeting with clients.

What could fresh eyes do in an industry like this?

“We have a chance to try that here at NBC,” Pilot says. “We’re doing this with a clear sheet of paper: It’s going to be the beginning of some really interesting discussions.”