Despite its "strike-proof" fall plans to air the Summer Olympic Games and the World Series instead of new entertainment programming, NBC would have been hit the hardest of the three networks if the Writers Guild of America strike had not reached a tentative end last week, the network's president and chief executive officer Robert C. Wright says.
Although entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff, as well as other TV industry observers, have said No. 1 NBC had the strongest strike defense, Wright said that the network would have hurt the most in the long run from an extended strike because it had more at stake than the others.
"We would have, in my opinion, suffered the most because we had the most to lose," Wright told journalists who cover television at a Saturday news conference in Universal City. "We had the premiere promotion of programming, we had the strongest schedule. If this thing had kept on for too much longer, it would have been a loss that would have had costs that built up over the next several years.
"The possibility of a start-up (for the season) in May or something like that basically took a lot of wind out of our sails. But the good news is, that isn't the case now, so I don't have to agonize at night about that. But we could have lost were the situation not resolved."
Although Wright may lose no further sleep over the strike's effect on entertainment programming season after last week's breakthrough, another development last week involving NBC's news division may keep Wright awake for awhile.
In fact, it was not the strike but last week's big shakeup at NBC News--the appointment of Iowa print journalist and executive Michael Gartner to succeed Lawrence K. Grossman as head of the network's news department--that dominated Saturday's discussion.
Both Wright and Gartner were quizzed Saturday on why NBC sought out a newspaper editor, rather than a experienced television news executive to head the department, as well as about why Grossman had left the post.
Although Grossman said candidly last week that clashes with Wright and displeasure with NBC's cost-cutting measures since the network was taken over by General Electric in 1986 led to his resignation, both Wright and Gartner remained mum about what led to Grossman's re placement.
"Larry Grossman did a very good job for us under very difficult circumstances," Wright said. Wright declined to answer a question about whether he'd had personal disagreements with Grossman. "That gets into a personality issue, and I don't want to get into that," he said.
Gartner, 49, sporting a cheery bow tie and a dry Midwestern wit, approached questions about his ability to switch from one medium to another with confidence and humor. "One of the terrific things about NBC News is that (NBC anchor) Tom Brokaw isn't Dan Rather," he deadpanned, poking fun at rival network CBS' continuing battle to keep the tarnish off the image of its volatile evening news anchorman.
Gartner, a self-proclaimed "new boy," admitted he would be learning "a totally different language" in TV news (an NBC news executive producer recently told him politely: "Say \o7 tape\f7 , not \o7 film\f7 "). But he also noted that good journalism is good journalism, whether in print or on the screen.
"I come into the job with the goal of being open and fair and honest, " Gartner said.
Wright agreed: "We have journalistic issues on the news side as well as TV issues."
Gartner said that he might be able to bring a better sense of the Midwest and Southern states to network news. He said he has already corrected one reporter's pronunciation of \o7 Des Moines \f7 and pointed out to "Today" show host Jane Pauley that she was confusing Iowa with Idaho. "So I've at least got their attention," he said.
Despite his newspaper background, where salaries are decidely less attractive than those in television, Gartner said he supported NBC's decision to offer "Today" host Bryant Gumbel a 3-year, $6-million contract, as well as an extra several hundred thousand dollars for anchoring the Olympics. "You pay stars star money," he said.
In a conversation after Gartner's news conference, Gumbel confirmed that he had been considering leaving NBC until the new deal. "Yeah, I was close to leaving," he said. "People were throwing amounts of money at me that made me wonder why I \o7 wasn't\f7 leaving."
Gumbel called being hailed by Gartner and Wright as a star "embarrassing," but said that applying a term used for rock singers and actors to apply to a journalist doesn't make him a lightweight: "It means that I am \o7 known\f7 --period," he said. Gumbel acknowledged that salaries paid to TV news figures are staggering but added: "I didn't make the rules. I'm aware that I make a certain amount of money for the network. . . . I think I should make the going rate."
Among other issues affecting the news and sports departments, Wright also discussed NBC's recently announced foray into the cable business, with consumer news and business channel CNBC, to debut next Feb. 1. On weekends, the service will be known as CNBC Sports.
Wright said he does not see CNBC's consumer-oriented programs as competition for network fare. Nor does he see its weekend sports programming as the type to draw audiences away from their NBC stations, since the major sports events will remain on the network and CNBC will concentrate on more specialized programs.
Wright added that, although he hopes for some "cross-pollinization" of the network and cable news departments, cable will not sap the strength of network TV.