NEW YORK — General Electric tapped a respected executive in its financial ranks Tuesday to succeed Grant Tinker as chief executive of National Broadcasting Co.
Robert C. Wright, 43, officially takes the reins Sept. 1 from the 60-year-old Tinker, whose programming prowess was instrumental in catapulting NBC from the network ratings cellar to first place in less than five years.
Wright, now president and chief executive of General Electric Financial Services, which oversees a brokerage, finance company and reinsurance firm, also will assume the network's presidency. That position has been vacant since the departure of Robert Mulholland in 1984.
The chairman's job at NBC, a position Tinker occupied, will be assumed by John F. Welch Jr., General Electric's chief executive and chairman. General Electric acquired NBC through a $6.3-billion merger with RCA earlier this year.
Wright's appointment was no surprise, having been presaged weeks ago. No less surprising is his mandate from Welch, with whom the veteran GE executive has close ties.
"My job is to see that the momentum of quality programming and quality performance (fashioned by Tinker) is maintained and accelerated," Wright told reporters at a 43-minute news conference here that also was beamed by satellite to NBC's 200 affiliate stations nationwide. "General Electric simply wants me to take the best and make it better."
But given the mandate for sustained programming excellence, NBC staffers have registered both surprise and concern over GE's decision to choose a lawyer and veteran corporate executive as the network's top official rather than a broadcaster.
Wright does have experience in cable television, having left General Electric in 1980 for a three-year stint as president of Cox Cable Communications in Atlanta. And, Welch noted Tuesday, he is accustomed to supervising creative people in his capacity as head of GE's $20.2-billion (assets) financial services operation.
But his expertise is in running businesses unrelated to broadcasting--notably plastics, housewares, audio and, most recently, financial services.
It is his track record and reputation for financial innovation in the latter job that earned him the NBC nod and, some analysts believe, the inside track for the top job at General Electric.
He has won admiration on Wall Street by designing creative pay structures sharply different from those in the GE mainstream to lure top performers while building the financial services businesses into one of the nation's largest and most profitable.
"He is an innovator and has fostered an environment that has (persuaded) some of the brightest minds in finance to come work for GE, of all places," said Nicholas P. Heymann, a securities analyst at the Wall Street brokerage of Drexel Burnham Lambert. "I think he will preside over a status quo environment (at NBC) but practice a little more financial acumen."
Heymann and other analysts who have followed Wright's career at General Electric look for him to make only modest belt-tightening measures at NBC. His focus, they believe, will be on fashioning solutions to what Tinker calls one of the industry's "thorniest problems": the rising cost of producing television programs.
The networks have been at odds with producers and studios, and all three have been on cost-reduction campaigns. Even Tinker, who is planning to return to independent production after he leaves NBC, has claimed that costs are "out of control" and has urged both the networks and the producers to join forces to do something about them.
"His immediate challenge is cutting these production costs and, at the other end, getting a bigger lock on the daytime shows," Heymann said. "If he can do those two things, then NBC will be No. 1 not by a hair, as it is now, but by a very wide margin, and he could be the next chairman of General Electric."
Wright would not address the issue of production cost cutting except to say that he has no "preconceived notions" about the need for such cuts. He did, however, say he plans no staff cutbacks, a subject much on the minds of NBC staffers--and indeed, all broadcasting employees--these days.
Several waves of layoffs and other cost-cutting measures at NBC rivals CBS and ABC, as well as a formal department-by-department review of NBC's operations begun earlier this summer--the results of which Tinker said are due out shortly--have only heightened apprehension.
But Mark Altman, an analyst at the Wall Street brokerage of Paine Webber, believes that such concerns are misguided. "I don't think there's going to be any dramatic change," Altman said. "You hear a lot about GE's cost cutting, but the flip side of that is Welch has demonstrated that he is willing to pour money into businesses where high returns are promised."
Welch intimated as much at the news conference Tuesday.
"This network is on a roll, and we at GE have a lot of cash," Welch said. "It's crazy for us now not to pound home that leverage."
Commenting on his strategy, Wright said he has no plans "to make any structural changes for the time being."
Rather, he said he intends to "stay with winning players, continue on a proven and winning course and never for a moment cease to demand the excellence that Grant instilled in NBC during his stay." Tinker, meantime, called his successor a visionary and labeled the timing of Wright's arrival "fortuitous." Tinker said he and his NBC team have been "working in the forest for so long" that he fears they lack the vision "of what's over the horizon."
GE pledges to respect independence of NBC News. Story in Calendar.