The Report: Comcast-NBCU Aftershocks
Before comcast’s takeover of NBC Universal is even formally complete, new management has its hands full: MSNBC star Keith Olbermann abruptly exited Jan. 21 — a decision that had little to do with the takeover but leaves the company without its biggest draw on its cable news network. Meanwhile, unconfirmed rumors swept through Hollywood that Comcast would shake up management at Universal Pictures. And on the broadcast side, the first effects of the deal were felt as Robert Greenblatt, new in the top job at NBC, sent entertainment topper Angela Bromstad packing.
It’s fair to say that some at NBC Uni who labored under GE’s management were hoping change would be good — and it very well might be. But as Comcast turns from concept to reality, anxiety is running high. Comcast’s top team is clearly savvier than the GE folks about the entertainment business, but they also are striking executives internally as secretive, buttoned-down and chilly. “These guys are scary,” one insider says. “You would think GE would have been the overly corporate presence, but it pales in comparison.”
For now, Greenblatt will have to replace Bromstad. Many industry insiders expect the job to go to Jennifer Salke, the 20th TV executive who has helped shepherd hits Glee (Fox) and Modern Family (ABC). She was rumored for the job back in November, prompting 20th to declare vehemently that she had a year left on her contract and would not be released. Two months later, 20th still says she has time left on her contract and nothing has changed — but that earlier emphatic “no” is gone.
In the meantime, Greenblatt has been poring through dozens of projects in development and doing some hard bargaining. Sources say he found some millions worth of major commitments to various projects from Warner Bros Television that left him cold. What followed was a tough negotiation, with both sides spinning the outcome as a win. An NBC source had it that WBTV agreed to eat $8 million in prospective penalties for the shows the network didn’t want. Warners, in exchange, got Greenblatt to commit to a pilot for David E. Kelley’s Wonder Woman, which Warners had tried to position as a hot property but actually was languishing with no buyer. Given the savings on the other potential penalties, NBC’s view is that it gets to sample Kelley’s wares, in effect, for free.
Aside from the obvious problems of primetime, Comcast is eying sports. The creation of a new NBC Sports Agency (headed by John Miller, formerly top marketer at NBCU’s TV group) makes it clear that Comcast will pursue an aggressive sports strategy to challenge ESPN. With many rights coming into play, Comcast will have an opportunity to capitalize, but the competition could be costly.
Comcast has so much work on the TV side that it might be long before the company turns to the film business, an area new to the company. But recently, the tide of speculation has turned as some now believe a management shake-up is imminent.
Outside of the blockbuster Despicable Me, Universal has had a string of disappointments, most recently the underperforming The Dilemma. Universal executives say the current regime of Adam Fogelson and Donna Langley is too new to be blamed for the studio’s recent performance, but the duo does have big-budget projects in the pipeline that will test the box office — among them is Battleship, based on the board game, with a budget north of $200 million. THR has confirmed that this past summer, Comcast approached several executives about jobs at the studio, but nothing material ever emerged.
Still, all these moves are only part of the larger equation. “Time Warner had the second-largest cable system already merged with the largest content provider in America, and they sold off the cable,” one old Hollywood hand says. “Comcast is buying in. Who’s right?”
That is the $30 billion question, and it’s safe to say that not even Brian Roberts or Steve Burke know the answer to that yet.