Once Comcast Owns NBC, Who’s the Boss of Whom?

jeff zucker getty Once Comcast Owns NBC, Whos the Boss of Whom?Ted Harbert knows what it feels like to miss out narrowly on a top entertainment job at NBC.

In the winter of 2000, Mr. Harbert was running NBC Studios in L.A. when network bosses passed him over (along with a field of other strong potential candidates) and announced that a young news producer named Jeff Zucker would be NBC’s new president of entertainment. Some three years later, Mr. Zucker himself bypassed Mr. Harbert and chose then-FX chief Kevin Reilly to come in and oversee the network’s struggling prime-time programming. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Harbert left the Peacock.

Mr. Harbert later landed at Comcast, where he is currently the president of the cable provider’s West Coast entertainment group, overseeing some of the company’s more high-profile pro-gramming assets, including E!, G4, FEARnet and the Style Network. Following the Dec. 3 announcement that Comcast had purchased a controlling stake of NBC Universal from General Electric, Mr. Harbert once again finds himself in a familiar position: jockeying with other NBC executives for a top job running a prime piece of the network’s entertainment portfolio.

Will the third time be the charm? Decisions about who will be running what at the new NBC-Comcast venture won’t be finalized for another 9 to 12 months while regulators in Washington scru-tinize the particulars of the deal. But in the meantime, the NBC-Comcast parlor game is already in full swing.

Since last week’s announcement, executives from both Comcast and General Electric have repeatedly stated that there are minimal redundancies between the rank-and-file employees at their two companies (the implication being that layoffs should be minimal). But what about redundancies at the executive level? Between Comcast and NBC, there appears to be something of a logjam of executive-vice-president types with proven track records of running profitable cable channels, including the likes of NBCU chief Mr. Zucker; NBC entertainment chief Jeff Gaspin; and Jeff Shell, president of Comcast’s programming group (to name just a few). One TV insider joked to The Observer at a recent cocktail party that it looked like there were “too many Jeffs in the kitchen.”

While most of the public discussion to date has focused on Comcast’s stated long-term commitment to Mr. Zucker, employees within 30 Rock have kept busy speculating about the future roles of dozens of other top-tier managers like Mr. Harbert. With details scarce about how the management structure at the new joint venture will shape up, every scrap of information is being chewed over endlessly.

On the morning of the announcement, in an interview with CNBC, General Electric boss Jeffrey Immelt set off tremors when he seemed to suggest that current NBC cable execs might oversee Comcast’s entertainment group-not the other way around.

“I can talk about strategy and all the synergies, and I feel really great,” said Mr. Immelt. “I mean, I look and see what a Bonnie Hammer or a Lauren Zalaznick can do with E! and Style, what Dick Ebersol can do with Golf Channel. There’s lots of synergies there.”

Before the panic button went off in Comcast’s West Coast offices, Brian Roberts, Comcast’s CEO, hastened during the same CNBC interview to praise the work of his programming executives, in-cluding Mr. Shell and Mr. Harbert. But whereas Mr. Roberts was effusive in his praise of NBC’s current cable programming assets (“CNBC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, five different channels in the Universal NBC portfolio make over $200 million a year, so these are great businesses”), he seemed to acknowledge that Comcast’s cable networks weren’t in the same ballpark in terms of profitability.

“NBC Universal’s margins-Jeff mentioned some of the channels-they have about 50 percent margins on their cable channels,” said Mr. Roberts. “We’ve had great people like Ted Harbert run-ning E! We don’t have the scale. We have wonderful brands.”

Sure enough, a cursory look at the numbers confirms that Comcast’s current entertainment channels aren’t quite on the same scale as those run by NBC-although E! is pretty close. In 2008, according to data provided to The Observer by industry analysts at SNL Kagan, E! earned $164,800,000 in net advertising revenue with 94.1 million subscribers; G4 brought in $70,197,000 and 65.2 million subs; and the Style Network pulled in $84,020,00 and 59.1 million subscribers. The numbers have been up significantly at all three networks since Mr. Harbert took over in 2006.

But how the channels might eventually fit in with NBC’s programming mix-and who will run them moving forward-promises to be the source of much competition in the months to come. Comcast leaders, for their part, are hoping for one big happy family. “Both of our teams are strong with incredibly talented people,” a Comcast spokesperson said. “Together, we will create very exciting possibilities for the future of entertainment.”

Beyond the people, what about the content? “The question I have is-can you find or extract any kind of benefits from owning these networks in one house, without homogenizing them?” Tom Eagan, a media analyst for Collins Stewart, recently asked The Observer. “You don’t want E! to become Bravo. That’s going to be important: keeping the identity of each network while still sharing some of the resources.”

fgillette@observer.com