Entertainment Industry

Category: General Electric

NBCUniversal's Burke names investment banker to top financial post

The purging of high-profile General Electric Co. executives from NBCUniversal is complete.

NBCUniversal Chief Executive Steve Burke on Wednesday put the finishing touches on his senior management team by announcing that Stuart J. Epstein -- former managing director of Morgan Stanley and global head of the firm's media group -- would become chief financial officer for the entertainment giant in mid-October.

Epstein has been a strategic advisor to Comcast Corp. for several years, NBCUniversal said in a news release, adding that he played "a key role" in the merger finalized earlier this year between Comcast's entertainment properties and NBCUniversal. 

Epstein will take over for Lynn Calpeter, a trusted ally of General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt. Calpeter, who got her start at GE 18 years ago in GE Plastics, had served as NBC's top financial officer for eight years. She returned to Fairfield, Conn., in July to become GE Energy's CFO.

Calpeter was one of the few GE executives who survived the early exodus of senior officers at NBCUniversal when Comcast took control in late January.  Other GE favorites, including former NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker, television chief Jeff Gaspin, human resources chief Marc Chini, advertising sales chief Mike Pilot, international chief Peter Smith and communications head Allison Gollust, were quickly shown the door.  

NBC's former sports chairman, Dick Ebersol, abruptly left in May after he and Burke failed to agree on a new contract although he has since returned as a consultant.  Other prominent springtime departures included former diversity chief Paula Madison  (who previously served as general manager of KNBC-TV Channel 4 in Los Angeles), and media works chief John Eck, who had worked at GE Capital and the GE aircraft engines division before joining NBC.

Comcast owns 51% of the joint venture while GE holds 49%.  GE eventually intends to cash in the media company that it has owned for 25 years.

This wasn't the first time Burke recruited a longtime Comcast advisor from the business world to fill a senior-level role.  He hired Adam Miller, former president of public relations firm Abernathy MacGregor Group, as head of corporate affairs and communications for NBCUniversal.

-- Meg James


NBC's Head of Television Jeff Gaspin Leaving the Company

Comcast's Burke Taps Two Veteran Programmers to Lead the NBC Network

NBC Universal Chief Jeff Zucker Resigns

Photo of NBC's West Coast offices in Burbank;  Credit David McNew /Getty Images

Comcast to invest additional $300 million for NBCUniversal programming

Comcast Corp. this year plans to spend $300 million more for television programming to revive the ailing NBC broadcast network and keep the company's cable channels humming.

NBCUniversal Chief Executive Steve Burke on Wednesday renewed Comcast's long-standing pledge to invest millions of dollars more for television programming than had General Electric Co. Comcast became the majority owner of NBCUniversal in late January, and now GE is the minority partner.

During a conference call with analysts to discuss Comcast's first-quarter earnings, Burke said the company would spend $200 million more this year on prime-time shows to try to give the cellar-dwelling NBC network a lift in the ratings. The Philadelphia-based cable giant also plans to pump in an additional $100 million on programming for the company's profitable cable networks -- including USA, Syfy, E! and Bravo -- to keep the channels at the top of their game. 

BurkeUSAupfront Much of the $200 million destined for NBC is to restock the 10 p.m. time slot with scripted shows after the previous regime's debacle of placing Jay Leno in prime time for four months in 2009 and early 2010.  More than a year later, NBC continues to struggle to regain its footing with dramas and comedies at 10 p.m.

"The real key to turning around NBC is not necessarily increasing the investment. The real key is making better shows," Burke said. 

This spring, NBC ordered 21 pilots -- about the same as a year ago, when the network began trying to dig out from the Leno disaster. Burke said he and other company leaders will soon screen NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt's first slate of prime-time programming. NBC plans to unveil its fall schedule in New York on May 16. 

For the quarter ended March 31, NBC broadcast revenue of $1.35 billion was down 35%, primarily due to lower advertising sales. In the first quarter of 2010, NBC's top line was inflated with $782 million in revenue from its coverage of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.

Analysts wanted to know whether a Comcast-run NBCUniversal would spend wildly to retain its sports franchises, including the Olympics. NBCUniversal ended up losing $223 million on its coverage of the Vancouver games, an embarrassment for GE and a financial miscalculation that few want to see repeated.

NBC also loses more than $100 million a year on its NFL "Sunday Night Football" contract.

But Burke refused to reveal that page of his playbook.

"We're in business to make money, and our approach is going to be disciplined," Burke said.  "As it relates to the Olympics or the NFL, we think those are two fantastic properties and would love to have them, but we would like to make money. ... At the end of the day, we are not going to do anything that doesn't have a business plan that pencils out."  

Comcast also separately reported the financial results of its Los Angeles-based Universal Pictures' unit. For the first quarter, the studio brought in $975 million in revenue, an 8% decline from the year-earlier period. The studio's losses were due to increased marketing costs for its upcoming films, lower DVD sales and some duds at the box office.

"We are well aware of the challenges in the film business, and the fact that the DVD business has declined," Burke said.  "But part of it is that we need to make better films -- and that's a real area of focus for us as well."

-- Meg James

Photo: NBCUniversal Chief Executive Steve Burke. Credit Joe Corrigan / Getty Images

Don Browne, president of NBCUniversal's Telemundo network, retires

Telemundo President Don Browne is stepping down, clearing the way for his new bosses at NBCUniversal to make sweeping changes to the Spanish-language television operation.

Browne, who turns 68 next month, plans to leave the company June 3 -- the eight anniversary of his arrival at Telemundo after a distinguished career in NBC News. Browne joined NBC in 1979 as NBC News' Miami bureau chief. He eventually became a top executive within NBC News, and later served as general manager of WTVJ, NBC's owned-and-operated station in Miami.

Don Browne NBCUniversal said it would announce a new Telemundo president "in the coming months."

The architect of Telemundo's entry into the business of original programming, Browne wanted to end the network's reliance on foreign studios for its prime-time shows.  Browne oversaw the construction of a small TV production center in Hialeah, Fla., just outside of Miami. In recent months, the network has grown its ratings on the strength of its original telenovela, "La Reina del Sur."

However, despite investing hundreds of millions of dollars in original programming over the years, the NBCUniversal-owned Spanish-language network has struggled to make headway in the market. It is dwarfed by its more potent rival, Univision Communications Inc., which obtains most of its popular prime-time soap operas, or telenovelas, from its Mexican programming partner, Grupo Televisa.  Univision has a substantial advantage because its telenovelas -- which have already played on TV in Mexico --  are cheaper to acquire and have a track record. Univision schedules the programs that generated big ratings in Mexico and appeal to the large Mexican American population in the U.S.

When Comcast Corp. took control of NBCUniversal in January, Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts and NBCUniversal's new chief, Steve Burke, said they wanted Telemundo to produce stronger ratings and, thus, more revenue for the company.

Browne was assigned a new supervisor, Lauren Zalaznick, who is dramatically different from the suit-and-tie bosses that Browne had before. Instead of giving Browne autonomy to run his business, Zalaznick was determined to get involved, even taking Spanish lessons and spending days immersing herself in Telemundo's operations in South Florida and Los Angeles.

Since 2005, Browne has been responsible for all of Telemundo's business and programming functions, including running Telemundo's 14 owned-and-operated television stations, including KVEA-TV Channel 52 in Los Angeles. He also managed Telemundo's news and sports operations and its youth-oriented cable channel, mun2.

NBCUniversal said Browne was "an early and fervent supporter of NBC's investment in Spanish-language television and played a key role in the company's 2001 acquisition of Telemundo."

"Don Browne has had an outstanding career as a broadcaster and executive, from his years as a bureau chief and executive vice president of NBC News to his tenure most recently at Telemundo," Burke said in a statement Tuesday announcing Browne's retirement.  "We are grateful for what he has accomplished."

-- Meg James

Photo: Don Browne. Credit: Telemundo / NBCUniversal


General Electric completes buyout of French partner Vivendi's stake in NBC Universal

Clearing the way for its handoff of control of NBC Universal, General Electric Co. this week spent $3.8 billion to buy out the remaining interest of its French partner, Vivendi.

Vivendi held on to a 20% stake in NBC Universal, stemming from the French company's 2004 deal when it sold the majority of its U.S. entertainment assets -- including NBC, Universal Studios and cable channels USA Network and Syfy -- to GE.

JeanBernardLevy Last fall, GE began acquiring Vivendi's interest in preparation for NBC Universal's merger with the Philadelphia-based cable operator Comcast Corp. in a deal that is expected to close Friday. Comcast will own 51% of NBC Universal; GE will retain 49%. Comcast's agreement with GE allows GE to completely shed its entertainment holdings by 2018.

Vivendi received $5.8 billion for its stake under terms of a deal hammered out in November 2009 when GE Chairman Jeffrey Immelt traveled to Paris to negotiate an exit strategy for Vivendi. Vivendi Chief Executive Jean-Bernard Levy, in a bid to extract as much as he could for Vivendi's share of NBC Universal, had been obstructing Immelt's attempts to engineer a merger with Comcast.

"We are very satisfied that our strategic objective to exit NBC Universal has been completed," Levy said Wednesday in a statement.  "We wish all parties well in their new venture."

-- Meg James

Photo: Vivendi Chief Executive Jean-Bernard Levy. Credit: Antoine Antoniol / Bloomberg News

Comcast: Take the bus, park the golf carts at the office

Comcast Corp. executives are preparing for a "global" town hall meeting Thursday to introduce the approximately 30,000 NBC Universal employees to the new leadership.

Comcast officially assumes control of NBC Universal on Friday, but Thursday's town hall meeting, moderated by NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, is being designed to set the tone for the new administration.  Employees at five locations will receive the Comcast "credo," a set of business objectives, along with a book that features the three founders of the soon-to-be melded company: Carl Laemmle, who in 1909 formed the Independent Moving Picture Company of America, the precursor to Universal Studios;  David Sarnoff, the radio pioneer who was intregal to the formation of NBC in 1926; and Ralph J. Roberts, who in 1963 bought a small cable TV system in Tupelo, Miss., and over the next five decades built Comcast, which soon will be among the nation's largest media companies. Ralph Roberts' son, Brian, is the CEO of Comcast.

Last week, employees in Burbank and Los Angeles received invitations to Thursday's town hall meeting  "to be a part of history to celebrate the formation of the new NBC Universal." The invitation "strongly" encourages workers to attend the telecast, which will be held at the Universal Amphitheatre. Employees will be able to park in one of Universal's hulking parking structures or hop a shuttle bus, which will be at the ready at 7 a.m.

Employees were told they must be in their seats by 8:30 a.m. — earlier than the 9 a.m. when much of the workforce usually rolls in.

Those trying to read the Comcast tea leaves were puzzled by one sentence in the invite: "Golf Cart Parking Will Not Be Available."  Was that because Comcast wanted to send a message that ranking studio executives, who can tool around the film studio lot in golf carts, should ride in the shuttle buses like ordinary employees?

No, said one high-level executive. There just isn't enough space around the amphitheatre to accommodate a flotilla of golf carts.

After the webcast featuring Brian Williams interviewing new NBC Universal Chief Executive Steve Burke, a localized session will follow. In Los Angeles, Brian Roberts, Universal Studios chief operating officer Ron Meyer and the new chairman of NBC Entertainment, Bob Greenblatt, will take questions from employees.  

At two other locations — NBC's headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York and Telemundo's production center in Hialeah, Fla. — demand is so high that employees must enter a lottery for a chance to win a ticket to the telecast, which also is being beamed to Comcast's headquarter's in Philadelphia and NBC's offices in London.

Employees have been told they must surrender their old NBC Universal badges on Thursday in order to receive a new Comcast-issued NBC Universal badge.

— Meg James

Photo: Golf carts at Griffith Park in Los Angeles. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times.


Comcast unveils management team for NBC Universal

Comcast unveiled its new executive lineup for NBC Universal on Thursday morning, ending months of anticipation and executive jockeying. Although Comcast has its new team in position, it must now wait until federal regulators approve the cable company's deal to take over NBC Universal, and that is not expected until late this year or early next year.

Comcast Chief Operating Officer Steve Burke, who will run NBC Universal after the deal closes, has created a layered structure with six executives holding the title of chairman. 

BURKE "For nearly a year, we have worked hard to identify people from NBC Universal, Comcast and outside the two companies to form our new leadership team when the deal closes.  Our goal has been to find people who have the skill sets we need to succeed and who reflect the values that will be the hallmark of NBC Universal, including teamwork, integrity, creativity and a commitment to treating people the right way," Steve Burke said in a statement. 

"We have also been very focused on putting in place the best possible organizational structure.  To that end, we have created some new positions, changed the scope of others and shifted some reporting assignments.  We think we’ve developed a structure that organizes the company in the smartest way possible," he said.

The proposed structure, with more than 10 people reporting to him, ensures that Burke will be a hands-on manager, involved in decisions large and small. Burke will serve as chief executive officer, replacing Jeff Zucker, who announced in September that he would step down when Comcast took over.

As expected, former Showtime President Robert Greenblatt will become chairman of NBC Entertainment, responsible for all aspects of prime-time and late-night programming, business affairs, West Coast research, marketing, public relations, scheduling and NBC Universal's television production studio. Marc Graboff and Angela Bromstad will report to Greenblatt.

Ted Harbert, who currently runs Comcast's entertainment channels, including E!, will become chairman of NBC Broadcasting.  He will take charge of advertising sales, NBC affiliate relations, companywide research, domestic television syndication and the NBC TV station group.  Alan Wurtzel, Barry Wallach, Vivi Zigler and John Wallace will report to Harbert.

Bonnie Hammer assumes control of the soon-to-be-merged company's most profitable enterprises. She becomes chairman of the NBC Universal Cable Entertainment and Cable Studios. Hammer will continue to oversee the USA and Syfy channels, and she will take on responsibility for E! Entertainment, G4, Chiller, Sleuth, Universal HD and Universal Cable Productions.   

Lauren Zalaznick's portfolio also expanded enormously. She becomes chairwoman of NBC Universal Entertainment and Digital Networks. Bravo, Oxygen and the website iVillage will continue to report to Zalaznick, and she will oversee strategic marketing initiatives, including Green is Universal.  Zalaznick picks such digital properties as Daily Candy, Fandango, Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo and the cable networks Style, mun2 and PBS Sprout.

Dick Ebersol becomes chairman of the NBC Sports Group, responsible for NBC Sports, the Golf Channel, Versus and the Comcast Regional Sports Networks. 

Ron Meyer retains his turf as president and chief operating officer of Universal Studios. Adam Fogelson will continue as chairman of Universal Pictures, and Tom Williams will be in charge of Universal's parks and resorts.

Steve Capus continues as president of NBC News and MSNBC.  Mark Hoffman continues as president of CNBC.

Jeff Shell joins NBC Universal from Comcast to become chairman of NBC Universal International. He will be based in London.

Pat Fili-Krushel will join NBC Universal from Time Warner Inc. with a broad portfolio, including business strategy, human resources and legal.

Lynn Calpeter continues as NBC Universal's chief financial officer.  Rick Cotton continues as NBC Universal general counsel and will report to both Burke and Fili-Krushel.  Salil Mehta continues as president of business operations and strategy and will report to Fili-Krushel.  Former KNBC Channel 4 General Manager Paula Madison will continue to serve as executive vice president of diversity. John Eck continues in his role as president of NBC Media Works.

Longtime Comcast communications advisor Adam Miller will join NBC Universal as executive vice president for corporate affairs. The communications department will report to Miller, who currently works at Abernathy MacGregor Group.  Page Thompson will join NBC Universal from Comcast as executive vice president of strategic integration and be charged with identifying synergy opportunities among Comcast, NBC, Universal Studios, theme parks and cable channels.

Matt Bond will join NBC Universal from Comcast as executive vice president for content distribution. Two influential NBC Universal executives, Bridget Baker and J.B. Perrette, will report to Bond.

Advertising sales are split between Comcast executive Dave Cassaro, who becomes president of cable advertising sales, and Marianne Gambelli, who will become president of NBC Network Advertising. The former chief of ad sales and longtime General Electric executive, Mike Pilot, will leave the company.  

Jeff Gaspin, who has been in charge of NBC Universal's television channels since July 2009, will stay on during the transition period.  He and Burke discussed scenarios for Gaspin to remain at the company, but the two men could not agree on a suitable role.  Burke said communications chief Allison Gollust also will step down when Comcast takes over.  

"While this announcement provides some clarity to some roles and responsibilities," Burke said, "it is only the first in what will be a series of milestones as we move into 2011."

Now, the intrigue shifts from the question of which executives will survive the cut to speculation about when Comcast will get the keys to the prominent media company.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission continues to weigh the merger between Comcast and NBC Universal, currently owned by General Electric Co.  Most observers expect the government to attach several conditions before giving its blessing to the high-profile marriage. Comcast hopes the deal will close by year's end, but Washington insiders speculate that regulatory approval might come during the first quarter of 2011.

-- Meg James

Photo: Comcast's Steve Burke. Credit: Comcast.

Even with 'Despicable Me,' NBC Universal third-quarter profit falls [Updated]

Despite strong performance from its movie studio and theme parks, NBC Universal's third-quarter operating profit tumbled 15%. The lower earnings were largely due to an unfavorable compairson to the year-earlier period and higher spending on programming to try to jump-start the limping peacock TV network's prime-time schedule. 

[For the record at 8:31 a.m.: An earlier version of this post stated NBC Universal's third-quarter profit drop was largely due to substantially higher spending on programming. It was largely due to an unfavorable comparison to the year-earlier period. Higher programming costs also contributed to the figures.]

But the investment in new programming has not paid off. NBC's big bets for the new fall season, including "The Event" and "Outlaw," have failed to win huge audiences.  Instead, NBC's broadcasts of NFL football have kept the network in the ratings game.

The media company, owned by industrial giant General Electric Co., on Friday reported operating profit of $625 million for the period ended Sept. 30. That compared with $732 million for the year-earlier period. Revenue for NBC Universal was flat at $4.06 billion.

In a conference call with analysts, General Electric Chief Financial Officer Keith Sherin said NBC Universal had tough comparisons with the third quarter of 2009, which included a gain from the company's sale of its stake in the A&E Networks.  "The operating performance was better than reported," Sherin said.

The standout division for the third quarter was the Los Angeles-based film studio, Universal Pictures, and theme parks. The movie "Despicable Me" was a box-office bonanza, and attendance at the Universal Studios theme parks was up by double-digits, with crowds swarming to the openings of the new Harry Potter and King Kong attractions.

NBC Universal's cable TV division performed well. Bravo had its best quarter ever, GE said, and financial news network CNBC's profit was up 5%.  Advertising to local TV stations was also strong.

GE is in the process of turning over its controlling interest in NBC Universal to Philadelphia cable giant Comcast Corp. Sherin said the company was cooperating with federal regulators scrutinizing the proposed joint venture and was hopeful that the deal would close by the end of the year. After the merger, Comcast will own 51% and GE will retain 49% of NBC Universal.

Overall, GE saw its profit for the third quarter plummet 18% to $2.06 billion. Revenue of $35.9 billion was down 5% compared with the year-earlier period, short of analysts' expectations.

-- Meg James


NBC Universal profits bounce back, signaling GE agreed to Comcast sale at market bottom

Comcast Corp.'s timing on its multibillion deal to acquire controlling interest of NBC Universal is looking pretty good right now. General Electric Co. decided to unwind its interest in NBC Universal early last year when the media business seemed to be on the ropes.

Comcast and GE finalized the deal in December and are waiting for regulators to approve the $30-billion transaction. The government's blessing is expected by the end of the year.

On Friday morning, GE released its second quarter-earnings, and operating profit at its media unit was up 13% to $607 million compared with the period a year ago. Revenue at NBC Universal was up 5% to $3.75 billion, which marked the biggest increase of any GE unit. 

Analysts took notice.  "We see significant sequential improvement in the NBCU assets, which makes the timing, structure and cash outlay of the [Comcast] deal that much more attractive to us," Wachovia senior analyst Marci Ryvicker wrote in a report Friday morning.

Operating income for NBC Universal's cable television unit, which includes USA Network, Bravo, Syfy and CNBC, jumped 10%. Cable revenue was up 7%. Even the hard-luck NBC broadcasting division saw its earnings improve 6%. The NBC television station group propelled the climb as its results were up 25%, demonstrating a strong bounce-back of the local advertising market. Overall, broadcasting revenue inched up 1%.

There was more good news at NBC. GE executives said network advertising commitments for the upcoming television season were up 18% compared with the amount of commercial time sold during the 2009 upfront market when advertising sales were hit by the recession.

Revenue at Universal Studios, which includes the Los Angeles-based film studio, increased 6%.  Profits were up $40 million. The current third quarter should be helped by Universal's latest hit, "Despicable Me."

NBC Universal was one of only two GE units to grow revenue during the period. The other was GE's Home and Business Solutions. However, GE's core businesses -- energy infrastructure, technology infrastructure and GE Capital -- all brought in lower revenue compared with the second quarter of 2009.  

As a whole, the industrial giant reported earnings of $3.1 billion for the second quarter, a 16% increase.  Revenue fell 4% to $37.44 billion, due to lower GE Capital assets and lower equipment sales.

While the bounce back in NBC Universal's results looks like GE agreed to exit the entertainment business at the bottom of the market, the timing of the deal has turned out to work in favor of France-based Vivendi, which owns 20% of NBC Universal. As a result of the rise in the value of the U.S. dollar over the last nine months, Vivendi's take-away payment will be worth about 10% more than the $5.8 billion it negotiated last November for its stake.

-- Meg James  

Telemundo: Would you like to buy a chunky bracelet through your tears?

Spanish-language telenovela audiences are known for their loyalty and passion.

Now the Spanish-language Telemundo network is hoping that viewers' desire for their nightly dose of TV drama will translate into jewelry sales.  Thursday, the NBC Universal-owned television network launched a website, telemundojewelry.com to hawk bracelets, necklaces, rings and earrings sported by characters on Telemundo's prime-time soap operas, called telenovelas, including "El Clon" (The Clone) and "Donde Esta Elisa?" (Where Is Elisa?).Telemundojewelry

English-language networks have been unable to muster audiences that tune in night after night to watch the latest installment of the same prime-time program.  But Spanish-language networks, including Telemundo's competitor Univision, frequently command the rapt attention of their viewers, some of whom would love to lead the exciting lives that they see portrayed on the small screen -- righting cultural injustice, engaging in star-crossed love affairs with hunky hombres and, of course, wearing fabuloso clothes and jewelry.

Now viewers can buy the Telemundo jewelry online and, later this year, in retail stores. Prices range from $9.99 for earrings to more than $150 for necklaces and bracelets.

NBC for years has tried to cash in on the popularity of its shows, offering "The Office"-themed Dwight Schrute bobblehead dolls, "Today" show cooking aprons and, until recently, Conan O'Brien-inspired Conanlunchbox "Pale Force" lunchboxes  (NBC Universal's merchandise website says the lunchboxes, marked down from $15 to $6.97, are "currently sold out.")

The Telemundo jewelry line, an initiative of Telemundo President Don Browne and Executive Vice President of Emerging Businesses Peter Blacker, is offered in association with NBC Universal's consumer products group; Big Tent Entertainment; fashion designer Udi Behr, who selected the initial collection of jewelry; and the Richline Group Inc.,  a wholly-owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., a major jewelry manufacturer and importer of gold jewelry. 

We're not sure this is what Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and Chief Executive Warren Buffett had in mind when he helped NBC Universal parent company General Electric Co. out of its financial jam nearly two years ago with a $3-billion investment in GE. But it probably didn't hurt.

-- Meg James

Photo Credits: NBC Universal. Pictured are "El Clon" bronze-colored bracelet with turquoise stones (upper right) and the discontinued Conan O'Brien Pale Force lunch box (lower left).

Winter Olympics, Conan O'Brien settlement put a drag on NBC Universal earnings

NBC Universal is relieved that its winter financial wipeout is finally over.

Parent company General Electric Co. on Friday released its first-quarter results, which included, as expected, substantial losses generated by NBC's coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. Although GE posted a 32% drop in earnings, the company nonetheless beat analysts' expectations.

GE Chairman Jeffrey Immelt said there were signs the economy was improving, along with the industrial giant's profit margins -- except for a couple of problem divisions.Immelt

"NBC, because of the Olympics, was a drag on margins overall," Immelt said.  

NBC Universal's operating profit of $199 million was down 49% compared with the first quarter of 2009. Revenue of $4.32 billion for the quarter was up 23% compared with the year-earlier period, but it was about flat when ad sales for the Olympics were excluded from the results.

GE executives warned investors several months ago that it would lose as much as $250 million on its coverage of the Vancouver Games -- but it did not turn out as bad as first feared. NBC ended up losing $223 million on the Olympics, GE said. 

"In the end, the sales were better," explained GE Chief Financial Officer Keith Sherin. Ratings were 14% higher than for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. The television network took in about $800 million in revenue related to the Olympics in February, Sherin said. But that wasn't enough to cover the $820 million that NBC paid the International Olympics Committee for the TV rights, let alone the enormous costs of production and a workforce to broadcast the 17 days of events.

And then there was the Conan O'Brien effect.

Sherin donned his own comic hat, telling Wall Street analysts: "You might have missed this, but we did a lot of shuffling of the lineup in the first quarter. You may not realize it, but we are reprogramming at 10 p.m." 

NBC's late-night squeeze play -- canceling Jay Leno's failed prime-time show, moving him back to 11:35 p.m. and bumping O'Brien out of his coveted "Tonight Show" time slot -- was costly.  GE did not break out the amount shelled out to get rid of O'Brien (although sources have said NBC paid $32 million to O'Brien and an additional $15 million in severance for show executives and crew members). GE did include the peacock's fiasco as a negative in NBC's results, titled: "Conan O'Brien departure and settlement."

Since canceling Leno's prime-time show in February, ratings at 10 p.m. have been up 45%. And, Sherin said, "Jay Leno is back in late night and he regained his No. 1 position." 

NBC's Los Angeles-based movie studio, Universal Pictures, continued to deal with duds. "Box-office results for movies did fall short of our expectations," Sherin said, but he said that was partially offset by scaled-back spending on movie marketing. DVD sales were encouraging, with Universal selling 5 million units, led by the comedy "Couples Retreat."

On the upside, the television advertising market continues to show signs of recovery. Local television ad sales were up 15% in the first quarter, Sherin said, and some NBC network and cable channel ad sales were up as much as 20% over ad rates that were established last summer. That's a hopeful indicator as NBC Universal heads into the all-important advertising sales season next month.

Cable television once again was NBC Universal's top performer. USA, Bravo and Syfy had strong results, and Oxygen turned in its best ratings ever. Profit at financial news network CNBC was up 7%, and MSNBC "had a few milestones," Sherin said. MSNBC, he said, beat CNN in prime time for the quarter. 

Overall, General Electric generated first-quarter net income of $1.87 billion, or 17 cents a share, compared with $2.75 billion, or 26 cents, for the year-earlier period. Revenue was down 5% to $36.6 billion.

"In media we have a negative, but we think our worst quarter is behind us," Immelt said. "We should see growth at NBC U for the remainder of the year."

-- Meg James

Photo of Jeffrey Immelt by Jonathan Fickies / Bloomberg News


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