Everyone's talking about The Wrap's report last night that cable giant Comcast is in talks to buy NBC Universal. We don't know if it's true or not, but one thing's for certain: If it is, Tina Fey is screwed.
The story's murky: Citing two sources, The Wrap reported that a deal to purchase NBC Universal—which owns Universal Studios, the USA Network, Bravo, MSNBC, NBC, and a bunch of other stuff—from General Electric "had already been completed at a purchase price of $35 billion." GE has been rumored to be interested in selling NBC for ages, and Vivendi's reported intent to exercise its option to sell its 20 percent stake in the company this year could be a motivating factor for getting a deal done. Comcast, which owns cable and internet pipes but not much of the stuff that goes through them, has always wanted to own a big content company, and made a failed pass at Disney five years ago. GE makes engines and microwaves, so it never made much sense for them to own a network and studio.
But Comcast has attempted to knock the story down, saying "the report that Comcast has a deal to acquire NBC Universal is inaccurate." And while GE has officially remained silent, CNBC—which Nikki Finke suspects is acting as a mouthpiece for its corporate parent—is pouring cold water on the report as well. But NBC Universal's bullet-headed, upward-failing chief Jeff Zucker sent out a compay-wide e-mail today that took pains not to shoot the story down, saying, helpfully, "there are a number of possible things that could happen." The New York Times says that, Comcast's carefully calibrated denial notwithstanding, it is just one of many companies looking at buying Vivendi's stake in NBC Universal, but not the whole company. Billions of dollars are at stake, so you can be fairly confident that everybody is lying.
But what happens if Comcast does buy the whole hog outright? Here are a couple of potential ramifications:
Tina Fey Is Screwed:
The primary comic engine of 30 Rock is the notion of a television network being run by a cultish global microwave conglomerate. Brian Roberts, the CEO of Comcast, is a mild-mannered squash champion who lives in Philadelphia. They could get a good story arc out of the sale, but in the end, what's so funny about a show-runner clashing with cable executive? We suppose they could just pretend it didn't happen, but it's been funny because it's been true!
Bill O'Reilly is Screwed:
Ruh-roh. The hysterical crusade against GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt for personally helping Iran build a nuclear warhead sort of lacks urgency when it's not a proxy war against Keith Olbermann and MSNBC. If GE fully divests and Comcast takes over, O'Reilly loses his favorite target to lie about. Maybe Comcast gives free cable to ACORN, or something?
Jeff Zucker is Probably Not Screwed Because He Always Gets Away With It
Jeff Zucker, who personally oversaw the dismantling of one of the greatest television brands in history from the home of Seinfeld and Friends to the home of the Jay Leno Comedy Hour, should have been fired, repeatedly, years ago. But he somehow persists, and even though we'd like to speculate that Comcast's new management would seek a shake-up in order to more closely integrate NBC Universal's content into Comcast's delivery system, we won't because the guy always wins.
Other than that, NBC Universal would have to get used to having an interested, involved corporate parent that thinks it knows something about the entertainment business. Its status as the red-headed stepchild at GE afforded it some independence—GE didn't care much as long as NBC made the numbers. Comcast, on the other hand, is in the business of delivering entertainment, and probably has some ideas on how to make it. It would also of course seek to sell Universal Studio's film library via its On Demand service, and would likely try to find a way to sell all of NBC Universal's content through its internet service.
One significant area where the two companies overlap is ad sales: Right now if you're a Comcast subscriber watching USA Network, you're seeing a mix of ads sold by NBC Universal and Comcast. If a deal is completed, Comcast would in effect own all the cable ad inventory on its cable properties. And in local markets, Comcast now competes with NBC's owned-and-operated stations—they want the local car wash to buy Comcast's cable spots, not the NBC station's local news spots. That competition would go away.
But there's little evidence that owning both content and distribution brings strategic value. Time Warner, in fact, only this year split its cable systems from its vast content operations. In Comcast's case, it's tough to see that having more MGM movies on demand has helped Comcast slow the inroads that phone companies have been making into its video business. And there are surely cheaper ways to prevent exclusive deals by rivals than to spend billions on an equity stake.