Creativity, focus appeal to Immelt

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NEW YORK -- Observers have no doubt that General Electric chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt was a driving force behind the appointment of Jeff Zucker to the top management post at NBC Universal as the GE boss continues to put his stamp on the entertainment unit.

But what are Immelt's visions for NBC Uni and his expectations of the man who becomes only its second-ever leader?

Related story: Zucker vows to take NBC Uni to 'next level'

Digital growth, focus and assertiveness in a fast-changing industry -- as well as continued financial improvements -- are what Immelt, 50, likes about Zucker and expects him to deliver, according to the executives involved and Wall Street and industry sources.

More bluntly, some said to Immelt, Zucker represents the melding of a culture of creativity and the hard-driving GE culture that's focused on performance.

Immelt's presence at NBC Uni has been felt much in recent months, with a GE-style management restructuring occurring late last year and a handful of executives, like new NBC Uni CFO Lynn Calpeter and digital-media chief Beth Comstock, moving from GE to key positions at NBC Uni.

Then in December, Immelt tapped equipment finance division president Michael Pilot to replace network ad sales president Keith Turner. Pilot's appointment was a marked shift from the old-school, TV-based approach that had ruled at NBC for generations; it showed that Immelt and GE want new blood and new ideas at 30 Rock.

It's not unlike 1986, when then-GE executive Wright was appointed to lead NBC by GE chairman and CEO Jack Welch.

Under Wright's leadership, NBC's and later NBC Uni's revenue grew from $3 billion in 1986 to more than $16 billion in 2006, the company noted Tuesday. He transformed a broadcast network into a diversified media and entertainment company, leading in 2004 to NBC's acquisition of Vivendi Universal Entertainment.

Observers said that Immelt truly appreciates Wright's work and friendship but felt it was time for a younger executive to take over.

Immelt told reporters during a conference call Tuesday that he has watched Zucker for five years. He said that Zucker finally clinched the job toward year's end after repeatedly impressing Immelt and NBC Uni board members.

"I always liked the way he approached people and the way he approached change," Immelt said of Zucker. "And I liked the judgments he made," his ability to learn and adapt quickly and to handle tough times.

Asked if there was any specific event that made Zucker stand out, the GE boss lauded "the change he brought in our entertainment business, motivating yet holding people accountable" through such initiatives as NBC 2.0.

He also described Zucker with the words "tough," "passionate" and "instill(ing) loyalty."

Confronted with the argument some have made that NBC's primetime ratings tumble came during Zucker's reign, Immelt said those troubles could not be attributed to one person. He also pointed out the strong performances of many parts of the company that were under Zucker's supervision, including what he called a "great" cable unit performance and a "phenomenal" news division run.

"We have had record-breaking performances in all (areas) but primetime," Immelt said. "Jeff has 1,000% of my support and of the board's support."

Street observers argue that what Immelt values in Zucker are key elements of GE's management culture, which focuses on performance, achievement and the bottom line.

Discussing the reasons behind Zucker's appointment, Immelt emphasized as much by calling the new NBC Uni head an "energetic, focused leader who can rise to a challenge."

Wright told NBC Uni staff that he also feels Zucker brings the right combination of creative and company knowledge and financial focus to his new job. Zucker is "a skilled executive who knows this company inside and out and has the right mix of business knowledge, programming savvy and marketing creativity to lead NBC Universal into a bright new era," Wright said.

One Wall Street analyst who wanted to remain unnamed said within the GE culture, the passing of the NBC Uni torch to Zucker is a "natural progression" for Immelt as he hands over the reins to someone younger with more digital experience. "The business model has changed rapidly," the analyst said.

Asked whether GE could sell or spin off NBC Uni, as some on the Street have proposed in the past, Immelt said this is "not something we envision." After all, "we like the business," he said. "It is performing well and positioned for good growth in the next years."

The focus for GE is therefore to get more value out of NBC Uni by growing its profits, with a 5%-7% increase projected for 2007, Immelt said.

Asked about the state of the turnaround of primetime ratings at NBC, Immelt told reporters that he feels the firm made "good progress" in 2006 and "there is a whole lot more to NBCU than just primetime."

New Yorker columnist Ken Auletta said that Zucker's appeal to Immelt in part also stems from Zucker's long association with "Today," NBC's most profitable show and a linchpin not only for the news division but for the entire network. Zucker was executive producer of "Today" at age 26 and a resounding success in the job before moving up the corporate ladder.

"And when 'Today' got in trouble two years ago and 'Good Morning America' was on a trajectory upward, Jeff stepped in, fired the executive producer and found someone from the sports division (Jim Bell) who really calmed the place down," Auletta said.

Also, Zucker turned a potential disaster for "Today" and NBC -- Katie Couric's departure in May after 15 years on the show -- into a positive, orchestrating a classy good-bye, hiring Meredith Vieira and signing Matt Lauer to a new contract.

"Jeff handled her leaving with great grace," Auletta said.

"When you look at that, if I'm Jeff Immelt, what is the biggest revenue producer on NBC?" Auletta said. "Jeff shored up my No. 1 revenue producer, and he's expanded it to three hours and now to four."

Auletta also argues that unlike a lot of people who come out of the news division, Zucker is a businessman in addition to being a journalist, and he shares a strong personality with his boss at GE.

"Jeff is good with people. Immelt is a good people person, and I think he appreciates that Jeff's a charismatic leader, he can energize the troops, he can give a rah-rah speech," he said. "And that's not unimportant in a world where you want to get back into first place."

Alex Woodson contributed to this report.
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