GE CEO keeps breakfast address light

Exec dodges NBC Uni sale questions

General Electric chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt managed to mesh fun with economic gloom on Thursday.

Asked at a Wall Street Journal breakfast event about his favorite show on NBC, part of GE's entertainment arm NBC Universal, he acknowledged he loves "30 Rock." "We're the butt of every joke, but it's a great show," Immelt said, adding he also enjoys "The Office."

Asked about the state of the economy, the GE boss said it's the worst he has seen and the worst since the downturn of the mid-1970s, with only the Great Depression left as a worse period.

But he wasn't ready to make a call on whether the U.S. or the world economy are in a recession or depression. "It's one of them" for sure, but he didn't pay enough attention to definitions in business school, he quipped.

Layoffs are often necessary in this environment, but GE lets its various divisions and businesses decide how many cuts are necessary and make sense, Immelt said. Pointing at NBC Uni CEO Jeff Zucker who was in attendance, he explained, "Jeff's going to grow his cable (network) business, but the (TV) stations business is going to go through a brutal (period)."

He didn't let himself get drawn into a debate on a possible sale or spin-off of NBC Uni, which has often been rumored in the past only to get shot down by Immelt repeatedly. Asked if the current structure of GE still makes sense and if Zucker wouldn't prefer to run his own company, Immelt pointed at the NBC Uni head and said, "That's my favorite guy right here."

He went on to say that GE's portfolio of businesses makes sense as long as earnings, cash flows and returns are solid. Immelt also lauded NBC for its record $206 million advertising haul for the Super Bowl.

While NBC Uni and GE have promoted a range of "green" initiatives in recent years, Immelt said, "I'm not an environmentalist...I'm a businessman."

Asked if he really doesn't have a big green heart, he said he drives hybrids but has "never camped." And he added he rarely gets "more than 20 yards away from a channel clicker."
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