Comcast Remakes NBC: Bob Greenblatt, Bonnie Hammer, Lauren Zalaznick Ascend
Comcast has announced its hotly anticipated plan for NBC Universal. Read our scorecard of who is sitting pretty, and who’s been kicked to the curb.
Comcast has officially announced its long-awaited reorganization of NBC Universal, which has been more buzzed about than any of the company’s recent shows or movies. Much of the new management structure and division of duties among executives has steadily leaked out to the press since early September. Indeed, with regulatory approval for its $13.7 billion takeover of NBCU imminent, Comcast went public with the new organizational structure in part to stop all the speculation and rumor-mongering.
“Everything they announced was expected, there were no surprises,” says one high-level NBC executive. “No one’s going, ‘Oh my God, that happened.’ Everyone is just anxious to get on with it.”
We already knew, for instance, that Comcast’s Steve Burke would become CEO of the combined company, while NBC’s top two executives, Jeff Zucker and Jeff Gaspin, would be leaving at the end of the year. (Zucker, in fact, is spending this week and next giving his final Town Hall addresses to each division of NBC individually.) It had been an open secret for months that former Showtime president of programming Bob Greenblatt would be taking over the NBC broadcast network as well.
Sources say that the flatter structure, which widens out the reach of executives like Bonnie Hammer and Lauren Zalaznick, is a testament to the fact that Burke “knows what he doesn’t know.” According to these sources, Burke’s intention in having Hammer, Zalaznick and other division heads report directly to him instead of an intermediary is to take a deep dive into the businesses that are unfamiliar to him and spend a year learning everything there is to know about them.
“This new management structure may not look the same 18-24 months from now,” says a second NBC insider. “He wants to get to know everything and go from there.”
Of course, now that the reorganization is official, the speculation stops and the backbiting from disenchanted executives begins. It’s only a matter of time before executives start talking about how they got shafted or someone got more than they deserved.
So why wait? Here’s our flash take on the executive suite winners and losers.
Steve Burke: The longtime second-in-command at Comcast to CEO Brian Roberts, Burke was rewarded for being a loyal soldier to the stodgy Philadelphia-based cable operator by being named CEO of NBC Universal. The former Disney executive has long-coveted the opportunity to run a glitzy entertainment company and finally has his chance after making an embarrassing, failed hostile takeover attempt for the Magic Kingdom five years ago.
Robert Greenblatt: After transforming Showtime from an HBO also-ran into a legitimate contender in buzz and awards (though not ratings), the pay-TV network’s former president of programming makes the jump to one of the most storied broadcast networks in television history, beating out in-house heavyweight Bonnie Hammer for the top job running NBC. Greenblatt will be placed atop everyone in the organizational structure except for Burke as the Chairman of NBC Entertainment. Now the hard part begins, as Greenblatt’s main charge will be finding some anchor shows to jumpstart a turnaround at the perennially last-place network.
Dick Ebersol: NBC’s sports programming guru, the mastermind behind its Sunday Night Football and Olympics coverage, will remain in his current post as Chairman of NBC Sports Group under the new regime. While that may seem like a loss since he has no added responsibilities, the fact that Comcast decided to keep Ebersol in place despite, at age 63, his being only two years away from retirement says a lot about the respect Burke has for him—he could have easily brought in new blood or one of his own guys to run sports, which is expected to be a major area of focus for the new company.
Ron Meyer: The longest-tenured CEO of a Hollywood movie studio, Meyer has survived yet another merger at the top of Universal Studios despite a dearth of hits over the last few years. The former agent’s Hollywood and political connections and reputation with talent, combined with the fact that his studio is profitable, helped extend his streak as Universal’s president and chief operating officer. The downside: Comcast is Meyer’s third corporate master in the last decade after Vivendi and General Electric, but unlike the other two, Meyer’s new owners’ haven’t decided how committed they are to the movie business.
Bonnie Hammer: The president of NBC’s USA Networks, which includes oversight of the eponymous channel, Syfy, Chiller, and Sleuth, is adding two of Comcast’s fastest-growing cable networks to her portfolio with E! and G4. Her new title will be Chairman NBC Universal Cable Entertainment and Universal Cable Studios. Hammer initially lobbied for the top programming job at the broadcast network, but sources indicate that she backed off that in favor of expanding her cable network holdings given their more favorable economics. Landing E! was a big coup for Hammer, as the network’s current leader Ted Harbert is a Comcast favorite and the sensibilities of the channel seem more suited to Zalaznick’s skill set. Hammer will also report directly to Burke.
Lauren Zalaznick: The current head of NBC’s Bravo and Oxygen cable networks, sources previously told The Daily Beast that the hard-charging Zalaznick was interested in a decentralized management structure and oversight of additional networks, digital properties, or marketing. She briefly tossed her hat in the ring as a candidate to run all of the combined company’s cable networks. While she didn’t get that, she did pretty well for herself anyway, adding Spanish-language network Telemundo, cable network Style, and websites Daily Candy and Fandango to her portfolio. Zalaznick is particularly excited about Telemundo, says the second NBC insider. “She’s getting a network, it’s a huge deal,” says this source. “The Hispanic market is enormous, and though it will be a challenge because she hasn’t played in that space before, she knows how to create buzz.” Her new title is Chairman NBC Universal Entertainment & Digital Networks and Integrated Media and will also report directly to Burke instead of an intermediary.
Jeff Shell: None of the Jeffs fared well in the reorganization, but at least Comcast’s head of content still has a job. Shell, who had oversight of Comcast cable networks E!, Style, Golf, Versus, and others, was angling to be the second-in-command to Burke at NBC. Instead, he got the consolation prize of running the combined company’s international business. His new title will be Chairman NBC Universal International and he will be relocating to London as part of the reorganization. Given its arsenal of sports programming rights, Comcast is expected to mount a challenge to ESPN, and Shell is widely believed to play a major role in that effort, perhaps becoming a successor to Ebersol once he retires.
Jeff Zucker: The quarter-century run at NBC, which amounts to his entire working life, came to a sudden end for Jeff Zucker when Comcast announced in September that he would be leaving the company at the end of the year. Zucker began as a wunderkind news producer at the Today show and quickly rose up the ranks of NBC to eventually become its CEO. But his star began to dim once in the executive suite, and now Zucker is faced with an uncertain second act. And he’s just 45 years old.
Jeff Gaspin: NBCU’s second highest-ranking executive, holding the title of chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment, went from overseeing the company’s broadcast network, cable channels, production studio, and other assets to being out of a job. Indeed, a frequent criticism of Gaspin was that by overseeing so much he really had claim over nothing. The poor performance of NBC’s primetime schedule so far this season, coupled with Gaspin’s handling of the Jay Leno-Conan O’Brien fiasco, sealed his fate. But Gaspin was well-liked and well-respected internally, and some insiders feel he didn’t get enough credit for providing managerial and financial stability to NBC the last two years. “He really didn’t have a chance to do a good or bad job,” says the high-level NBC executive of Gaspin’s short tenure overseeing NBC in the wake of Ben Silverman’s departure. Says another source of Gaspin: “I was disappointed when I heard he was leaving.” Sources expect Gaspin to resurface somewhere soon.
Steve Capus: The president of NBC News/MSNBC gets to keep his fiefdom, but doesn’t get any added responsibilities or reporting charges as part of the reorganization. He also loses a powerful ally in Zucker at a time when the infighting between his division and sister network MSNBC over controversial host Keith Olbermann is spilling into public view.
Mark Hoffman: Not unlike with Capus, Hoffman remains as the president of CNBC in the new management structure, but also doesn’t get any additional asset or executive oversight. He, too, was a close confidante of Zucker.
Angela Bromstad: NBC’s president of primetime programming is safe for now, but sources say her ultimate fate is in Greenblatt’s hands. Gaspin’s departure reflects negatively on her since they are both responsible for the failure to develop one program to serve as an anchor this fall for NBC in primetime. Greenblatt is open to letting Bromstad prove herself, but if she doesn’t she’s not likely to be long for the new world under Comcast.
Ted Harbert: Internally, sources say Harbert’s new role is the most perplexing. Despite being from Comcast, Harbert lost control of E! to Hammer in part because the cable operator wants the network to move into scripted programming and doesn’t think he has the chops to lead the charge. That’s a particularly stinging rebuke of Harbert’s creative talents given that he held high-level programming positions at ABC and NBC before joining Comcast. The cable network does take care of its own, however, and Harbert is being handed a sizable role as Chairman NBC Entertainment, making him the point person for the business side of the network, which includes advertising sales and affiliate relations. It’s a big role, but it isn’t the sexy programming post the Hollywood-slick Harbert hoped for—he’ll be elbow-deep in financial reports instead of walking red carpets. Indeed, he’ll be moving from the sunny confines of Los Angeles to New York just in time for winter. Basing Harbert in New York has raised some eyebrows among NBC insiders who remember his first stint with the network. “He doesn’t have the best reputation around these halls,” says a third NBC executive. “Burke got a bit dinged on this one because Harbert didn’t get anything in entertainment and isn’t highly regarded in business, so people are wondering how this happened.”
Marc Graboff: Like Bromstad, Graboff is safe for now. He gets a new title, President, West Coast Business Operations, NBC Universal Television Entertainment. Graboff’s business acumen is likely what saved him—he’s known as NBC’s Hollywood dealmaker, not as a creative guy. But Greenblatt will eventually decide if, and for how long, Graboff stays with the company.
Mike Pilot: Underscoring NBC’s dire financial straits, Burke is swapping out the company’s head of advertising sales for a decentralized structure that will separate broadcast network and cable network ad sales. NBCU’s Marianne Gambelli will lead sales for the broadcast network, while Comcast’s David Cassaro will run cable-network ad sales, leaving Pilot as the odd executive out.
Amy Banse: Comcast’s top digital executive lost her oversight of the company’s consumer-facing websites to Zalaznick in the reorganization. Banse, a well-liked and well-respected executive within Comcast, will instead be put into a corporate role in charge of new media investments.
Peter Lauria is senior correspondent covering business, media, and entertainment for The Daily Beast. He previously covered music, movies, television, cable, radio, and corporate media as a business reporter for The New York Post. His work has also appeared in Avenue, Blender, Black Men, and Media Magazine, and he's appeared on CNBC, Bloomberg, BBC Radio, and Reuters TV.