Digi shake-up at NBC Uni

Comstock to GE; Mehta promoted

General Electric has left the light on for Beth Comstock, who exited a key post at NBC Universal on Monday to return to the parent company.

But as the latest in a string of executives departing the Peacock, speculation mounted over whether she flew the coop or was pushed from her perch.

In a realignment of its executive ranks, Comstock, formerly president of integrated media, will assume a role similar to the one she held previously at GE: chief marketing officer and senior vp.

Her responsibilities were redistributed to Salil Mehta, president of business operations, strategy and development; Mike Pilot, president of sales and marketing; and Jeff Gaspin, president and COO of Universal Television Group.

This will be the second round-trip ticket Comstock has had punched between Rockefeller Center and GE's headquarters in Fairfield, Conn. She first decamped to GE while a NBC publicist in 1998 before returning to the network at the end of 2005.

Comstock is the latest in a string of execs that have departed NBC Uni after the ascension of chairman Jeff Zucker, to whom she was once linked as a rival for that position.

In an interview, Comstock said she was never meant to be a permanent addition, just a transitional leader looking to help NBC Uni work its way through the beginning of a new digital era.

"I leave feeling like we know where we've got to go," Comstock said. "This is very much the way we've been planning for things to happen."

NBC Uni has always been regarded as something of a steppingstone inside GE, which rotates talented execs among disparate divisions to give them a broader sense of a company with diverse assets. A predecessor to Comstock, Deborah Reif, also briefly led NBC Uni's nascent digital-media division before returning to GE as president and CEO of its equipment services division in 2006.

But insiders noted that the die was cast for Comstock's return once Zucker earned the top job she had coveted as a close ally of GE chief Jeffrey Immelt. Others suggested she yearned to return to her marketing roots as the demands of taking on two of NBC Uni's biggest challenges, ad sales and digital, took their toll.

NBC Uni also said Monday that Pilot will oversee the company's research department. IVillage will now move under Gaspin on an interim basis as part of a new women's virtual network built around female-skewing properties Bravo Media and the recently acquired Oxygen Media.

Rumors of Comstock's return to GE had been reported for months, but she had issued denials in response. That she is returning to the parent company came as little surprise given her success as chief marketing office in her first stint there, where she was the driving force behind GE's environment-friendly "Ecoimagination" campaign.

Comstock shrugged off questions about friction within the NBC Uni executive ranks and said that she leaves a "great team," noting that chief digital officer George Kliavkoff, who was brought in 18 months ago, was a key hire. Comstock said Kliavkoff's vision will inform Mehta's strategy in the digital space.

However, observers are wondering whether Kliavkoff will be next to exit given that he has been passed over for the top digital job in favor of Mehta, a former Disney exec who has been linked to two of that company's biggest digital flops: set-top film service Moviebeam and cell phone service ESPN Mobile.

Even at digital divisions outside NBC Uni, the shake-up at 30 Rock is being seen as evidence of renewed pressure to squeeze more revenue out of new-media platforms in the wake of a writers strike in which that subject was Topic A. Perhaps no executive feels that pressure more than Zucker, who has talked up the potential of NBC Uni's digital business with more zeal than his rivals.

Which isn't to suggest Comstock did anything particularly wrong that led to her exit; that said, insiders say she didn't do anything so right that she was indispensable.

Purchased for $600 million in 2006, the troubled iVillage always has been linked to Comstock, though the acquisition was said to be under way even before she came to NBC Uni. She also has been credited for launching a digital production studio and realigning the sales and marketing teams.

NBC Uni has seen a rash of defections among top execs in recent years, including longtime sales chief Randy Falco, who left in 2006 to become CEO of AOL. Discovery Communications also has claimed NBC Uni's former cable chief David Zaslav and business development chief Bruce Campbell, who Mehta effectively replaced.

At GE, Comstock will report to Immelt and will be responsible for leading the company's "growth initiatives, marketing, sales and communications" and "directing cross-business digital efforts," initially focusing on consumer health and environmental technology.

Andrew Wallenstein reported from Los Angeles; Alex Woodson reported from New York.