Speculation that GE might sell NBC Universal has surfaced time and again, as media pundits have wondered what an industrial conglomerate such as GE was doing with an entertainment property that rises and falls based on the ability of its various programs to seize the public's imagination. A new report has suggested GE might sell after the Summer 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Makes little sense
Speaking at a breakfast organized by Syracuse University's Newhouse School, Mr. Zucker suggested it made little sense for GE to sell NBC in coming months because of a variety of advertising opportunities that would come available. Not only has NBC shown growth in recent quarters, he said, but political elections and NBC's first Super Bowl broadcast in several years following the Olympics could bode well for the company's ad sales.
Nonetheless, Mr. Zucker recognized that the media business is in a state of flux and uncertainty. "The issue we want to solve," he said, is "we don't want to replace the dollars we were making in the old model with the pennies" people seem willing to pay to support content transmitted via digital means. A network's saving grace, he said, is its ability to produce content that people will choose to see. "Content is our friend. People are going to want great content."
He also said NBC had taken steps in recent months to stabilize its business as its broadcast network suffered a downturn in ratings due to its inability to replace hit programs such as "Friends" and "Frasier" with equally big successes. Cable has become a much bigger part of NBC Universal's bottom line, he said, though NBC still gets the lion's share of media attention.
CNBC vs. Fox
Mr. Zucker appeared sanguine about the ability of CNBC, NBC Universal's business-news cable outlet, to withstand any challenge from News Corp.'s upstart Fox Business Channel. The Fox network is "not as investor-focused" and "not as financially focused" as CNBC, he said, and he also did not think having contributions from News Corp.'s soon-to-be-acquired Wall Street Journal on Fox Business would hurt CNBC. The Wall Street Journal is locked into an agreement to provide its business news to CNBC, and Mr. Zucker said he expected that the deal would be honored.
Mr. Zucker also lamented the possibility of a writers' strike, which he said was looking more and more possible. He believed any impact on TV would take at least a quarter or so to take effect, with networks ramping up use of reality programs and newsmagazines if writers stopped producing scripts for comedies and dramas.
"It would be very, very unfortunate," he said, adding that a strike would take place "at everyone's own peril."