I was interested to read a piece in this morning’s New York Post about Beth Comstock heading from NBC Universal back to GE headquarters. The article quotes insiders who assert that Comstock had been marginalized during her “tumultuous two years” in the job and that executives were questioning her ability to lead NBCU’s integrated media.
GE spokesman Gary Sheffer tells me that the rumors are not true, adding that “digital will hit $1 billion in revenue in 2008, one year ahead of schedule.” That’s one sign of success, of course, but the overall unit only managed to eke out a 2% profit growth in the second quarter while areas like infrastructure and commercial finance really rocked.
The issue isn’t so much whether Comstock will head to another part of GE (at some point she almost certainly will). It’s whether GE will continue to hold on to NBCU itself. One bet is that the company will look to sell it after the Beijing Olympics next year. It’s too valuable an asset to offload before then, because of the advertising revenue and the window it gives GE to get more business in China. But the unit has long been a headache, from the choppy integration of NBC and Universal (Hollywood and Fairfield feel far apart), grumblings about rise of NBCU boss Jeff Zucker, and the disappointing performance of the core NBC network.
Comstock herself came into a challenging position at NBCU. After doing a much lauded job as chief marketing officer at GE (where she spearheaded an innovation push but left just as those efforts were starting to gain some momentum), she headed over to the digital job at NBCU. Tumultuous might well describe the atmosphere, less because of Comstock than the state of NBC. Everyone was struggling with digital. Then there was the politics. She came in as the third person to head up digital media in two years and inherited several colleagues with key digital responsibilities—not to mention the natural tendency to cast a jaundiced eye on any import from headquarters.
For all the attention to the dubious $600 million iVillage acquisition (which even GE chairman Jeff Immelt is hard-pressed to praise), it’s not fair to characterize Comstock’s tenure as a bust. NBCU has been a leader in gaining an audience for its content on the Web (and not just because of Justin Timberlake’s ‘D**k in a Box’ video). The current war with Apple over the pricing of content on iTunes could well work out in NBCU’s favor. The GE unit also just announced a content deal with Amazon.com’s Unbox.
Comstock still carries the aura of being an outsider to some folks in the industry and she has yet to pull off the kind of home-run success expected of a rising star within GE. But her overall track record is strong and she remains a favorite of Immelt. Her future looks assured. The real question is what happens to NBCU.
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