Comcast NBC Merger: Big Leadership Changes Ahead
Comcast has two plans for NBC: one a radical transformation that would give Bonnie Hammer and Lauren Zalaznick power. And another that risks losing them both. Peter Lauria reports.
There is no shortage of dramas to be worked out as Comcast Chief Operating Officer Steve Burke prepares for the takeover of NBC Universal. One of the more intriguing plot lines: what to do with the two powerful female executives who helped make USA Network and Bravo such successes—sometime rivals who are both hoping to parlay their cable hits into bigger jobs in the giant that emerges from the merger? Is it time at last to give the ladies their due? The early reports suggest that satisfying both Bonnie Hammer and Lauren Zalaznick won’t be easy. Last week, the New York Post reported a scenario in which Hammer, currently the president of NBCU's cable entertainment division, and Zalaznick, who holds the title of president of the company's women and lifestyle entertainment networks, would divide NBCU and Comcast's cable assets between them.
That’s not likely to go down well with either woman, NBC insiders say.
"It has been a big goal of Bonnie's to report directly to the CEO," says one network source, noting that the proposed reorganization would still have Hammer reporting to current NBCU television entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin. Adds a second NBC source: "Bonnie isn't really interested in simply bolting more channels on to her responsibilities." Of Zalaznick, this source says, "Internally, she's been lobbying for the world."
According to more than a dozen people I've spoken to, the structure the Post presents is largely correct. These people say, nearly unanimously, that NBCU boss Jeff Zucker will step down shortly after the deal's closing by the end of this year, that Comcast will leave Dick Ebersol and Ron Meyer in place as the respective heads of the company's sports and film operations, and that CNBC will be consolidated under NBC News leader Steve Capus' umbrella.
With the broadcast network and cable, one possible structure is bringing onboard former Showtime president of entertainment, Bob Greenblatt, to run the network with Gaspin—Hammer and Zalaznick would split the cable channels, adding Comcast's to their portfolios. But that is not the only scenario Burke is contemplating. For starters, it depends entirely on Comcast being able to land Greenblatt, which is no certainty. While rumors of Greenblatt—who developed such hits as Dexter and Weeds at Showtime, rescuing the perennially adrift pay cable channel and making it a commercial and critical success—going to NBC have been rife ever since he expressed interested in "rebuilding a network," both he and NBCU executives have denied being in negotiations about a role.
Naming Hammer to run broadcast and Zalaznick to handle cable is a more equitable structure since it gives both women a chance to run their own fiefdoms.
There are four executives—Gaspin, Hammer, Zalaznick, and Comcast head of programming Jeff Shell—who are key to the combined NBCU-Comcast, and Burke's goal with the reorganization is to retain as many of them as possible. The shakeup should be announced by early November.
"The trick for Burke is to figure out a way to retain three of those four executives without doing anything that would cause him to lose two of four," says a source close to NBCU and Comcast.
The problem is, splitting cable creates the very real possibility that Burke could end up losing both Hammer and Zalaznick—and potentially Gaspin and Shell as well. A second source close to NBCU says the power pair would rather leave the company than split anything between them. There is, however, another scenario being seriously considered at Comcast's Philadelphia headquarters that would satisfy the ambitions of Hammer and Zalaznick. Under this plan, Hammer would get the broadcast network and Zalaznick would control all of cable, as well as the combined company's digital operations.
According to a third source with deep ties at both NBCU and Comcast, this setup is the one that has been gaining traction recently—not at 30 Rock, but at Comcast, where it matters the most. There are a few reasons for that, not the least of which is the fact that Hammer and Zalaznick have both aggressively lobbied for those positions. To be sure, Hammer has been a loyal soldier for NBCU and was particularly stung after lobbying hard to replace Kevin Reilly in 2007 only to lose out when Zucker opted instead to bring Ben Silverman in from the outside. Given how that turned out, Burke might be leery of potentially repeating the same mistake with Greenblatt.
Hammer, who has led the No. 1 rated cable network, USA, since 2004, also has a powerful ally in Ebersol, whose opinion Burke respects.
"Ebersol is very close to Bonnie, and Burke likes and trusts Ebersol," says the first NBCU insider. "Burke wants to like Bonnie as much as Ebersol does and is interested in getting to know her directly."
Burke, who made his bones at ABC, is also a big believer in Disney CEO Bob Iger, and elevating Hammer, a traditional cable executive, to run NBC would follow the example Iger set recently in naming Paul Lee of ABC Family to run that company's broadcast network. What better way for Comcast to signal to the investment community that it is serious about experimenting with new ways to reinvent the broadcast business model than by naming an executive from the ascendant cable division to be its leader?
Giving Zalaznick oversight of cable would also reward an executive who has led Bravo to unprecedented growth and buzz with such hits as the Real Housewives franchise and the Emmy-winning Top Chef. Zalaznick also gets credit for spearheading two massive turnaround stories for NBCU: that of cable network Oxygen and website iVillage.
While splitting cable appears to put Hammer and Zalaznick on equal footing, it actually marginalizes both of them since Hammer's influence would be decreased. Naming Hammer to run broadcast and Zalaznick to handle cable, however, is actually a more equitable structure since it gives both women a chance to run their own fiefdoms.
"I get the sense from Lauren that she isn't going to relish anything that has a layering effect," says the third NBC source of how Zalaznick might react to a cable power-sharing setup.
This structure would likely leave room for either Gaspin or Shell, but not both of them. Indeed, it could end up resulting in the dismissal of both men, which sources say Comcast wouldn't consider to be too big of a loss since it thinks of both executives as more business-oriented instead of creative-minded and the latter is more in need at NBCU than the former.
Gaspin is said to have a poor relationship with Hammer, and he isn't likely to take too kindly to a power-sharing arrangement on the broadcast side with her. (Zalaznick is no fan of Gaspin's either, having worked with him at VH1, also.) Gaspin, an NBCU loyalist, has been as obsessed with running the network as Hammer, and feels similarly owed by the company for taking the bullets for Zucker over the Jay Leno-Conan O'Brien debacle, and providing stability on both the creative side after Silverman's departure and the financial side given the digital disruption in the entertainment business. But his Teflon style might end up coming back to bite him.
As for Shell, who currently has oversight of Comcast cable networks E!, Style, Golf, Versus, and others, he wants more than to just takeover sports—he wants Gaspin's job. That's why the longtime Comcast company man has been mentioned as a possible CEO for Tribune Company when it emerges from bankruptcy and is said to have met with Fox executives.
"He's signaling to Comcast that if he doesn't get a big enough role to keep him happy he's going to leave," the third source says.
Two Comcast insiders said the company plans to offer Shell a position in the merged company, but it is likely to carry less responsibility than he has now rather than more. If Shell can live with that, he'd likely be the one to stay over Gaspin. If not, Gaspin likely stays and Shell goes. Either way, under this scenario, Burke gets to keep three of the four key executives and avoids losing more than two of them.
A representative for Comcast declined comment. Zalaznick did not return multiple calls for comment. Hammer could not be reached.
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.