NBC may bring GE's culture to Universal lot
By Gary Gentile
LOS ANGELES It was only 18 months ago that Vivendi Universal chairman Jean-Marie Messier charmed a gathering of Universal Studios executives with his vision of transforming the company into a global media powerhouse.
NBC and Vivendi Universal agreed to exclusive talks to form a joint venture that would combine the NBC television network and NBC cable channels, such as Bravo, with Universal Pictures, Universal's theme parks and cable networks.
This week, Universal executives once again gathered to hear a new boss say how the company's fourth owner in 13 years would run the studio behind such recent films as "The Hulk" and "Seabiscuit." This time, though, the reception was more guarded.
NBC chairman Bob Wright spoke to more than 100 senior executives on a soundstage at Universal's back lot Wednesday. Earlier this week, NBC and Vivendi Universal agreed to exclusive talks to form a joint venture that would combine the NBC television network and NBC cable channels, such as Bravo, with Universal Pictures, Universal's theme parks and cable networks such as the Sci-Fi Channel.
"It was a little like deja vu all over again," said one longtime Universal executive who attended the meeting and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
One question on the minds of many Universal executives was whether Wright, a protege of former General Electric chairman Jack Welch, would seek to impose GE's culture of strict cost controls on a studio that regularly gambles millions of dollars on big-budget movies, not all of which earn back the investment.
NBC is owned by GE.
Wright talked about NBC's financial rigor during Wednesday's meeting, but added that NBC has been willing to spend a lot on television series and programs such as the Olympic Games, according to people who attended.
Universal executives will likely be held more accountable for cost overruns and be held to detailed budgets when it comes to making movies, said Robert Slater, the author of "Jack Welch and the GE Way."
"GE is not afraid to spend in the billions of dollars," Slater said. "But the reason they are so profitable is they don't have these budget overruns."
Another topic on the minds of wary Universal employees was whether NBC would seek to reduce costs through massive job cuts.
Wright addressed the topic up front by joking that the assembled executives should turn in their cell phones and badges and proceed to waiting buses to be escorted off the lot.
While jobs almost certainly will be cut in the redundant television production units, executives said wholesale job cuts are not planned.
Universal employees are approaching the proposed deal with a sense of relief that the prolonged bidding process, which dragged on for months, is over.
"The Universal culture survived the Japanese, it survived the Canadians and it survived the French," said the anonymous executive. "There's not so much a fear of the GE culture."