Sunday, January 30, 2011

New Boss in Charge

When Company A takes over Company B, it doesn’t take long for the new company ethos to trickle down.

Just ask the smart-alecks at NBC's hit series "30 Rock." Thursday night’s show smartly riffed on Comcast's full assumption of a controlling stake in NBC Universal from General Electric for $6 billion and change. As a bell tolls (make of that what you will), the bright letters “GE” on the fa├žade of a building (presumably those on top of the GE Building at Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan) short out, only to be replaced by a "K" inside a red swoosh resembling Comcast's logo.

“K” is one of the letters in the NASDAQ designation for Comcast’s Class A Special Common stock. Liz Lemon, the “30 Rock” character played by Tina Fey, knows what it really means. "Wow, out with GE, in with Kabletown," she said. "Seems like one of us should sing 'The Circle Game' right now."

Just ask Seth Meyers. The anchor of the Weekend Update segment of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” observed the changing of the guard earlier tonight: “This week, Comcast officially took control of NBC Universal, and I have to say things are better already … Seriously, I have to say that.”

You’re damn right you do, Meyers.

His riposte may be a tad cynical. It’s early yet and Comcast management clearly has tried to set the right vibe.

On Thursday a note from Brian Roberts, Comcast chairman and CEO, and Steve Burke, the new CEO of NBCU, was sent to all employees. In part it read:

Dear Colleague:

Today marks the birth of the new NBCUniversal. Together, Comcast and NBCUniversal are poised to become the greatest media company in the world, delivering quality content to a global audience on every conceivable platform.

We are incredibly excited about this opportunity. We're humbled, too, since we are keenly aware that NBC and Universal both have tremendous legacies, reaching back nearly a century. ...

Part of this new corporate order meant a tweak of the company name. Instead of NBC and Universal expressed as two separate words, the new logo abuts them in a single unit — another of the endless identity ligatures CorporateAmerica has inexplicably grown so fond of over the last twenty years.

Also, the beloved NBC peacock has been retired from the main corporate identity, though it will apparently still be used on NBC programming.

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On Thursday, Deadline Hollywood, the entertainment news and business Web site, columnist Nellie Andreeva wrote of how swiftly Comcast moved to put its stamp on things: “Going to work this morning, NBC Universal employees found all the company's old signs replaced overnight with new ones.” Andreeva said that a new intranet went online the same day.

The new bosses were formally introduced Thursday at a town-hall event broadcast internally live to the company’s employees. At the Deadline Hollywood, people weighed in Thursday about the merger, including one identified (for obvious reasons) as “NBC Employee,” someone who says s/he attended the tele-town hall:

“I was surprised at how cold the entire Comcast management team looked. Even grandpa Ralph Roberts who spoke briefly from New York looked like Darth Vader. I know Comcast didn’t buy NBC Universal to lose money so they have the right to take steps to cut costs. But if they wanted to save costs, why recreate thousands of ID badges and print thousands of history books about the legacy of the combined companies. NBCU’s days of being the 'Green Company' are clearly over!”

◊ ◊ ◊

There have already been some quick, short-term bennies. Deadline Hollywood and other news sources reported that each of the 25,000 NBCUniversal employees would receive 25 shares of Comcast stock (each share worth $22.84, as of Friday’s close), as well as a family pass to a Universal theme park, and a “Big Idea Book,” where ambitious employees are encouraged to write their own Big Ideas.

(What, no break on cable?)

How much employee goodwill Comcast secured with the $571,000 cost of those shares remains to be seen. Some NBCU workers are playing ball under duress.

Ed Schultz, host of “The Ed Show” on NBCU cable property MSNBC, announced on Thursday that the “Psycho Talk” segment of his show has been retired.

The segment, which roughly paralleled the "Worst Persons In The World" made famous by the now-departed Keith Olbermann, had Schultz weighing in on some political inanity of the day and calling it ”psycho talk.” The segment ended in the wake of Olbermann’s departure and the resultant shakeup in schedules that moved “The Ed Show” from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Schultz was politic about it all. On his Thursday radio show, Schultz said he was sorry to have to pull the segment, but "I work for somebody. I don't call all the shots."

“Now look," he said, "there's probably people in positions that are a hell of a lot smarter than I am, and have decided that that's what the way it's going to be. So, that's what's happening."

◊ ◊ ◊

Still, there’s reason to hope that Comcast may not be the big bad wolf from Philadelphia everyone’s afraid of.

At least internally. In July 2008, Black Enterprise magazine rated Comcast among the top 15 companies for workforce diversity, one of those firms that the magazine said “outperformed other corporations in the percentage of minority employees in the organization as a percentage of all employees.”

For everyday people, the Comcast-NBCU tie-up will mean a galaxy of new viewing choices. A one-stop shopping experience will be in the offing: Comcast — already offering a withering array of options for cable, Internet, mobile and landline — now adds broadcast and cable TV and motion pictures.

◊ ◊ ◊

Ironically, that could be part of the problem too. With so much content in one place, under control of one company (even with various restrictions in place), the concentration of media power in one company should be concerning.

In a sobering Orwellian forecast of the media future, former FCC Commissioner Tyrone Brown made it plain last July:

"This merger will reduce competition in the marketplace of ideas,” Brown said in testimony before the FCC.

“As surely as we sit here today, Commission approval will be viewed in the future as a milestone in a journey to a program marketplace where three megacompanies — at most four — will effectively control every aspect of the product chain, from creation to distribution to the customer.”

Now that the merger is a done deal, we’ll have to wait and see. As consumers, we’re left to hope Comcast recognizes the breadth of its own power, and the potential for corruption of that power.

There’s a New Boss in Charge. Pay your cable bill on time. Pray for wisdom, or, at least, for mercy.

Image credits: NBCUniversal logo: NBCUniversal. Still from "Saturday Night Live": NBCUniversal. NBC peacock: AP/Mark Lennihan. Still from "The Ed Show": MSNBC. Still from "30 Rock": NBCUniversal.

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