Lauren Zalaznick plays contract waiting game

EXCLUSIVE: Insiders bet Bonnie Hammer gets cable in reorg

With the Comcast acquisition of NBC Universal drawing nearer to completion, insiders scrutinizing the tea leaves are beginning to offer several informed predictions about the shape of the company's future management.

These observers believe that though Comcast highly values its two dynamo cable executives -- USA Network chief Bonnie Hammer and rival Lauren Zalaznick, who oversees Bravo and Oxygen -- if forced to make a choice, the company tilts in Hammer's favor for more postmerger responsibility. [Related: Jeff Zucker announces he's leaving NBCU.]

Facing uncertainty, Zalaznick has declined to extend her contract, even though the NBC Uni brass have entreated her to do so for months. Hammer's contract is not yet up, but one source close to the situation said, "If Bonnie's contract were up, I'm sure she'd be doing the same thing right now."

Those with inside knowledge of the company say Hammer and Zalaznick have long been close competitors.

"Lauren brings in edge, Bonnie brings in money," said the source. "If one has eight things to oversee, the other one gets eight ... Whatever list comes out, it's all about, 'Am I up above her?' "

In the postmerger world, insiders say Hammer, who is said to have powerful advocates within NBC Uni, might end up overseeing the entertainment cable networks. The consensus is that Hammer has the advantage not only because she oversees hugely profitable operations but because her crisp, corporate style appeals to the buttoned-down executives at Comcast.

"Bonnie's a little smoother, a little more user-friendly in how she deals with people," one executive said.

Several insiders caution that within NBC Uni, Comcast executives are tight-lipped about their plans. "They don't give any sign" that plans are being made, one said.

Nonetheless, insiders are expecting a restructuring announcement in the next few weeks -- well before the deal closes, presumably at year's end. (Such an announcement would come from current NBC Uni owner General Electric because Comcast must wait for the merger to be completed before making any overt moves.) "They are going to have to sacrifice programming decisions if they let this play out too long," one insider said.

There are many moving parts to this merger, and observers say the picture might be different from what they anticipate. And even if Zalaznick doesn't land a big role overseeing cable networks that most observers assume she wants, it's not clear that she would depart. She currently oversees Bravo, Oxygen, iVillage and a number of social initiatives -- like environmental action -- within the company. She declined to comment through a spokesperson.

Several observers said Zalaznick would have little difficulty landing a high-level position elsewhere should Comcast fail to serve up a sufficiently meaty role for her. One source said, though, "There is not much movement in the outside world, nothing sexy in any other medium."

Looking at the bigger picture, sources said Comcast COO Steve Burke is -- not surprisingly -- taking a very hands-on role in laying plans for the postmerger NBC Uni. They believe he will run the company once the deal is done.

Of course, formerly Teflon executive Jeff Zucker, NBC Uni's president and CEO, confirmed Friday morning that he will leave once the deal is done. To the bitter end, some staffers weren't sure he was actually going. In recent days, he sent out "save the date" e-mails to his top executives for a December meeting and holiday party in New York.

(Meanwhile, some insiders cringed when Zucker declared publicly at the Goldman Sachs Communicopia conference Wednesday that the battered network was in the midst of a turnaround. "The last thing we want at NBC is any chest-thumping," said one. "We are far from a turnaround at this point.")

On the film side, the consensus is that Ron Meyer will continue to reign as president and COO of Universal Studios, at least for the couple of years remaining on his contract. Although the studio has been and remains troubled, Comcast is believed to have other priorities and is not in a rush to replace a popular and well-connected leader.

As the merger moves toward closing, the fate of the well-liked and regarded Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment, remains cloudy -- particularly given his longtime association with Zucker. Many observers expect Robert Greenblatt, former president of Showtime Networks, to take over some or all aspects of programming the broadcast network.

Associates said Greenblatt always plays his cards close as well but believe he would not agree to report to Gaspin. If Hammer takes the reins at the entertainment cable networks, it certainly would alter Gaspin's role in the postmerger company.

Other players easily could emerge with plum roles in the new company, including Jeff Shell, president of Comcast's programming group. The closing date of the deal remains uncertain, and employees are being asked to sign up both for GE and new company benefits for 2011 in case the deal is not sealed by the end of December.