NBCU vision clouded by past

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NBC Universal is slashing costs, cutting jobs and looking for cheaper programs as it reacts to weaker prospects for its broadcast network. That's reality. But NBCU TV chief Jeff Zucker seems fuzzy about the more crucial part of "NBCU 2.0": retooling for the digital age. That's a concern.

Mr. Zucker's answer to a question from Advertising Age about what NBCU will look like five years out was oblique: "I think we [will] look like a company that is properly positioned for the digital era."

Mr. Zucker's lack of specificity is somewhat refreshing in a world where many claim to have it all figured out. He noted NBCU needs to be open to opportunity ("ready to distribute things in ways that you can't even envision today"). But where are the vision and the visionary?

To be certain, NBC has had vision problems before. A brief history:

November 1999: Just after Thanksgiving, NBC made the initial public offering for NBC Internet, which would be home to such winners as Snap, Xoom.com and Flyswat.com. Bob Wright, then boss of NBC and now chairman of NBC, said: "For the first time, investors will be able to purchase a piece of the Peacock." More like leftover turkey.

February 2000: Launch of NBCi.com. The press release extolled: "NBCi leads the next generation of development on the internet-'Internet 2.0'- ... in a world where television and the internet converge."

April 2001: With NBC Internet stock down 98%, NBC agrees to buy and dramatically shrink the venture. Mr. Wright explained: "This acquisition will enable us to build on our competitive advantage in the internet arena while leveraging our core competencies as a network."

Since then, Messrs. Wright and Zucker have leveraged their core competencies to drive NBC's 18-49 prime-time ratings from first place to fourth.

And now NBCU 2.0. Cost-cutting is warranted given prospects for NBC and broadcast generally; broadcast nets' share of U.S. ad spending last year hit a 50-year low of 5.9%. But digital is wide open. So where are the big ideas? Maybe NBC has them, but it needs to tell a more convincing story.
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