Forgive Bob Wright for feeling a sense of deja vu lately, inasmuch as recent headlines surrounding network television appear to
keep recycling issues he faced during his 20-year tenure as president of NBC.
News Corp. honcho Chase Carey’s threat to pull Fox off broadcast TV and transform the network into a subscription service in response to Aereo? Wright floated almost the same idea in the late 1990s, exploring the possibility of NBC becoming a cable network. A messy latenight handoff? Wright lived through the granddaddy of them all: Jay Leno replacing Johnny Carson, whose echoes reverberate to this day.
Escalating fees for sports rights? Wright wrestled with that as NBC took control of the Olympics, and saw then-upstart Fox muscle into
the NFL. And the question of how broadcasters compete with the creative latitude provided by cable? It was Wright who famously penned
a 2001 memo (dated April 23 !) to NBC execs and creative-community leaders asking how the explicit sex and violence on HBO’s “The Sopranos” “impacts mainstream entertainment” and about its implications for ad-supported networks.
After his departure from NBC in 2007, Wright became a senior adviser to Lee Equity Partners, the private equity firm. He also co-ounded and served as chairman of Autism Speaks, a charity that has helped prod the government to invest close to $2 billion in research.
Reached in New York, Wright admits he’s felt “a little bit of deja vu” over Aereo, and the prospect of a broadcast network seeking to alter its fundamental business framework.
“We looked at that seriously,” he says, adding that such a transformation “didn’t prove to be as inexpensive as we thought,” and raised a lot of thorny questions about violating existing relationships, including affiliation agreements.
“Thorny” also applies to NBC’s second attempt to usher Jay Leno toward early retirement, this time pointing him toward the exit while handing “The Tonight Show” baton to Jimmy Fallon.
The messiness of the latest transition — following weeks of rumors and denials — raises the question why there’s no such thing as a latenight change that doesn’t become a soap opera.
“Whenever you have a show with a single star, and the show is doing well, if you’re going to make a change in that situation for some reason, there is going to be some turmoil,” Wright suggests. He adds that representatives for such stars invariably “know how to negotiate,” which can include using media as leverage.
Wright was also close to Carson — especially after the host left the net — and as surprised as anyone by how completely Carson walked
away from being one of the most recognizable fi gures in America.
“Honestly, I didn’t think he would,” Wright recalls. “When the show was over, the show was over. I tried to get him to do endless things.”
Indeed, Carson had inked a deal with NBC — announced with some fanfare — but never pursued it. Part of the reason, Wright says, were
lingering ill feelings over how the shift was handled and particularly the role of Leno’s then-manager Helen Kushnick in pressuring NBC to hasten Carson’s farewell to secure her guy the job.
Carson “thought Jay should have stood up,” Wright says.
Finally, there’s the matter of sports, as prices for rights deals have soared 70% or more, and every team and conference seems to want its own regional network.
“That trajectory is not sustainable,” Wright says. “The only way they work is if people who don’t watch sports have to pay for them. At some point, they’re going to have to be broken out and sold as a sports tier .”
Given his career’s inevitable crises and various triumphs, Wright is asked what he misses most about the network. Despite being known as a buttoned-up GE “Six Sigma” type, Wright didn’t cite deals but rather the heady thrill of “Must-See TV’s” “Friends” and “ER” heyday.
“The one thing I do miss is the opportunity to participate in the creative accomplishments — to see the shows take off,” he says.
Now there’s the kind of Wright stuff NBC’s stewards would doubtless relish experiencing all over again.