The Media Barons: Bob Wright

Buying Universal Entertainment has fulfilled the NBC chairman Bob Wright's desire to expand the network. He talks to Jeremy Lee about going all-digital and life after Friends. In May this year, NBC, the General Electric-owned US media giant, paid $3.4 billion to buy Universal Entertainment from the cash-strapped French conglomerate Vivendi.

As well as bailing out Vivendi by significantly reducing its debt, the deal created a $42 billion vertically integrated global media giant, NBC Universal, capable of competing with its US-based rivals News Corp, Disney and Viacom.

It also propelled Bob Wright, NBC Universal's chairman and chief executive and GE's vice-chairman of the board, executive officer and member of the corporate executive office, into the international media big league.

Wright now manages an extensive media empire, which includes a major Hollywood studio and several cable networks. Just as NBC Universal's rival networks are wedded to studios - ABC with Disney and CBS with Paramount - the company can now claim to be a content powerhouse.

As well as the NBC television network, NBC Universal controls a heavyweight media portfolio including the channels Telemundo, USA Network, the Sci-Fi Channel, the arts channel Bravo, the international news channel CNBC, disparate worldwide businesses and joint ventures as well as the movie production businesses Universal Pictures, Universal Television and NBC Studios.

But Wright cuts an unlikely figure as a media baron, in charge of this vast media behemoth. Balding, in good physical shape for his 60 years and with a disarming humour and famously approachable demeanour, he makes an improbable addition to the great sweep of stereotypical bastard studio bosses.

In bullish mood, he seems keener talking about European football than discussing the company he has just created (but then this is probably just a ruse to allow him to talk about how he gets up at 6am and watches the CNBC feeds from its networks around the globe).

The reception and subsequent strong performance that the NBC network, the jewel in the NBC Universal crown, got at the recent upfront season must be buoying his mood, but more on that later.

Unlike Sumner Redstone, his counterpart at Viacom, or Rupert Murdoch at News Corp, Wright was not born into a media dynasty. He grew up in Long Island and was educated at the Catholic boy's school Charimanade before training as a lawyer at the University of Virginia School of Law.

His career took off when he took a general management job running GE's distinctly unglamorous plastics division. In 1979, the bright young thing was drafted in to run a US cable operator, Cox Cable Communications, which GE was in the process of buying. The deal fell through but Wright, having acquired a taste for media, stayed on at Cox Cable until returning to the GE fold in 1983.

When GE took over control of NBC, the so-called Peacock network, Wright, with his mix of media experience and company commitment, was the obvious choice and was given the job of running it. He has been trying to grow the business ever since. "I'd been looking to expand NBC since 1986. The challenge was finding the right fit," he confesses.

Over the years, Wright has looked at various partnerships for NBC. He has held unsuccessful merger talks with Paramount, which was later snapped up by CBS, and with Disney, which subsequently merged with ABC.

It was particularly timely, then, that Vivendi's ambitions of a global media empire that combined content and distribution had fallen apart at a time when NBC was in danger of becoming a wallflower on the US media scene.

Although Universal Entertainment was by far the biggest deal Wright has done, it is not the first example of him trying to flex the NBC muscle - the company has already expanded into the US Spanish-language market with the acquisition of the hispanic network Telemundo.

After paying $2.7 billion for the station in a deal completed in 2002 and one that Wright describes as one of his proudest achievements in business, NBC has continued to pump millions into Telemundo. "We have 40 million hispanics in the US and it is the fastest-growing ethnic group," Wright explains.

Although he says the purchase of Universal Entertainment was "opportunistic", it made sense for both parties: NBC got its hands on cable outlets for its programming, as well as a huge library of films and a TV and film studio, while Vivendi got a buyer for a media asset it clearly had no idea how to run. The new NBC Universal is 80 per cent owned by GE, with Vivendi Universal retaining a 20 per cent it can sell in 2006.

The deal is worth putting into context. The whole Vivendi Universal charade began when the French utilities company Vivendi bought Universal from Seagram in 2000, as part of an acquisition spree conducted by its former chief executive, Jean-Marie Messier.

This decision by Messier turned out to be one of the worst cock-ups in media corporate history: the company became overextended and deeply in debt. Its subsequent and spectacular disintegration made the AOL Time Warner hitch-up look like a marriage made in heaven. (Messier is under investigation for alleged illegal share dealing.)

While Vivendi failed in integrating its various media interests, Wright says NBC is committed to running the film business that proved so impossible for Universal's previous boss. "NBC is staying in the motion-picture business - we now have a large library of films and as we go digital and build video-on-demand services, we certainly don't want to give this up," he states.

This makes sense. In 2006, US federal mandates will require television stations to go all digital, which will allow broadcasters to split their channel spectrum into separate digital channels. With NBC now in ownership of the Universal Studio library of more than 5,000 films, Wright is intent on launching a video-on-demand format that extends the NBC Universal brand and acts as a source of subscription revenue, while also carrying advertising.

But Hollywood's bright lights were not the only appeal. "Our interest wasn't just about film - Vivendi has a portfolio of entertainment channels such as USA Network and Bravo. This now enables NBC to reach every home in the US," Wright says.

Although NBC Universal's US reach now has an impressive spread following the acquisition, the company still seems to lack the scale of some of its competitors on the international stage.

While its CNBC channel is available in about 100 million homes outside of the US and the Sci-Fi channel provides outlets in Ireland, Germany and Austria, one area that Wright will be able to exploit internationally is the distribution market for DVDs.

"Universal's distribution organisation does an awful lot of local pick-ups and it's very successful," he says. With consumer spending overtaking advertising revenue as the primary source of income for US media conglomerates, this will prove to be a useful source of additional revenue for the new company.

The news that NBC was buying Universal Entertainment wasn't welcomed with unalloyed joy in all quarters - GE has a reputation as a tough cost-cutter and there was concern that NBC would do its worst on what is essentially a creative business.

In the past, Wright was held up as the personification of the GE regime.

When he took over NBC in 1986 and despite it producing hit shows such as Cheers and The Cosby Show, the network was spending wildly and was considered terribly inefficient. This was not entirely unexpected. NBC is a venerable US media institution with its roots going back to 1919, when General Electric and Westinghouse formed the Radio Corporation of America.

RCA launched the National Broadcasting Company in 1926 to develop radio programmes and in 1939 it became the first regular television service with coverage of the US president Franklin D Roosevelt inaugurating the New York World's Fair.

Wright had no truck with NBC resting on the laurels of past glories, however, and he imposed harsh, but ultimately successful, cost-cutting measures.

Understandably, then, Universal Entertainment staff were also concerned that Wright and GE, the company's fifth owner in a decade, was about to do an NBC to them.

New to the job, Wright is cautious in describing the synergies that can be achieved from the integration of NBC Universal. "We estimate we will achieve $500 million savings against a company with a market capitalisation of $42 billion, although hopefully we will have better," he says.

The make-up of the new company is different from the sum of its two parts - it now has a far more diverse revenue base. While historically its revenues have been largely derived from advertising (in 1941, NBC launched the first commercial TV station in the world, called WBNT-TV in New York), the split is now very different.

Wright explains: "At NBC, advertising made up 90 per cent of our revenues and at Universal it was 10 per cent. We are now 50 per cent ad revenue, with the rest made up with revenue from cable companies."

This year was the first that NBC Universal could tout its wares at the US upfront negotiation season and, with the loss of both Friends and Frasier, its ad revenue stream was perceived as being under threat.

Wright is bullish about NBC's performance. "We had a surprisingly strong upfront season and our network performed strongly with The Apprentice and Joey (a spin-off series from Friends starring Matt Le Blanc) performing well," he says.

Despite losing two of NBC's banker shows, Friends and Frasier, Wright is surprisingly unemotional about their demise. "Friends was a great show but the cast was uncertain about doing another full year. In reality, nothing will replace Friends - although no-one thought it was going to be a great success," he says.

Other forthcoming highlights include LAX, a drama that takes part at Los Angeles airport, and Revelations, a story based on the Old Testament book of Revelations.

Although describing NBC as a place where "advertisers can aggregate", Wright admits there are demographic groups that he would like to get into.

Beyond the core broad adults sales proposition, young adults and children would make a useful addition.

Based on the current inventory, the booking figures certainly look healthy enough. According to Wright's figures, NBC Universal took $3 billion of advance bookings in primetime and $5.2 billion and its strong performance surprised analysts, who were expecting it to receive a rougher ride.

Although Wright is engaged in consolidating what he has got, looking to the future, it's a very different story and he continues to have a vision to expand its worldwide operations. "NBC Universal needs to find itself internationally and this is a challenge to us," he says.

So, in spite of having one of the longest tenures of any media company chief executive, his 18-year quest to grow his beloved NBC looks set to continue for as long as he's working there.

But how long is that going to be? Conscious of the danger of hubris and aware that GE is a results-led business, Wright knows that whatever his elevated position in the international media scene, his paymasters will still scrutinise everything that he does. Pragmatic as ever, he states: "I hope to be around in five years time, but you are only around if you are successful."