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The Wright Stuffiness for Vivendi?

NBC chief's style may aid quest for French firm's entertainment assets

August 11, 2003|Meg James and Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writers

Bob Wright isn't exactly Mr. Sizzle.

The 60-year-old NBC chairman is rarely seen at hot spots that cater to Hollywood's power crowd. He's more comfortable in a dark suit and tie, leading team meetings on the 52nd floor of Rockefeller Center in New York, or working the phones while he's supposed to be vacationing in Nantucket, where his yacht, the Peacock, is moored.

Some of Wright's contemporaries may find his style stiff and stuffy. But for the French executives of Vivendi Universal, who are auctioning their company's entertainment assets, Wright is a breath of fresh air, a buttoned-down man in their own image.

"They're suspicious of the breed that inhabits Hollywood," said Howard Stringer, chairman of Sony Corp. of America. "They see that too many have been shipwrecked by the shoals of Beverly Hills."

The personality of Wright and that of his network's parent, General Electric Co., have pushed them to the front of the line in the contest for Vivendi Universal's entertainment properties, which include film and TV studios, cable channels and theme parks.

NBC has proposed a deal vastly different from those of its rivals, one that relies heavily on its reputation for long-term stability. Rather than meet Vivendi's minimum $14-billion bid for the properties, Wright has crafted an offer that would create a new entertainment company, merging NBC with Universal. Vivendi would be given a minority stake, plus GE stock. Theoretically, Vivendi's payday would come down the road, when it sells its shares in the joint venture.

The NBC offer has gained momentum in recent days. Three bidders -- Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., Liberty Media Corp. and a consortium headed by oil billionaire Marvin Davis -- have indicated that they would not meet Vivendi's price target by this month's second-round deadline.

It remains unclear whether former Seagram Co. chief Edgar Bronfman Jr. -- whose family owned the Universal entertainment assets before they were acquired by Vivendi -- and his financiers will up their ante to the minimum. Among other potential players, media conglomerate Viacom Inc. wants only some of the Universal assets, and cable giant Comcast Corp. has begun studying Vivendi's books but has not joined the hunt.

For Wright, snagging Universal's multifaceted properties would represent a professional and personal triumph. Since former GE Chairman Jack Welch appointed him 17 years ago, Wright has wanted to expand the network, especially as cable competition has intensified.

"I'd like to see NBC get bigger and stronger," Wright said in an interview. "I want it to be relevant to people for many years to come."

Among many industry observers, the question now is whether Wright can structure a deal that GE's cautious brass can swallow or whether the risk-averse company could suddenly back out, as it has when negotiating past deals. Over the last five years, discussions with USA Networks, Discovery Communications Inc. and Sony have fallen apart over issues of price or corporate control.

GE Chairman Jeffrey Immelt, 47, is considered slightly more adventurous, though less colorful, than his legendary predecessor, Welch, who retired two years ago. But, as a GE prodigy, he remains true to the company's conservative character. Immelt joined GE at the age of 26, and his father worked for the company's aircraft engines division for nearly four decades.

Known for his low-key, consensus-building style, Immelt just last year told an industry publication that GE was not interested in acquiring a film studio. NBC, however, has long been hampered by its lack of a major production facility. As a result, it has had to shell out millions of dollars to outside producers, such as Warner Bros. and Universal Television, which provide seven prime-time shows to NBC, including the successful "Law & Order" franchise.

In recent months, eager to boost revenues in GE's media holdings and other key divisions, Immelt warmed up to the possibility of acquiring Vivendi Universal Entertainment. Still, he has dictated that only a small amount of cash, if any, be offered, sources close to the company said.

Wright has "definitely not been given carte blanche to go out and get this thing," said Kerry Stirton, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. "They've said, 'Go do a deal, but stay within limits.' "

Although some GE investors are skeptical about the upside of merging with Universal, Immelt's increasing comfort level with an acquisition says much about his confidence in Wright.

Once dismissed as a "GE plastics guy," Wright now is one of the longest serving and most successful television chiefs ever. He has built NBC into the industry's most profitable network, on course to deliver $1.3 billion in profit this year. Under his stewardship, NBC has hit ratings gold with numerous shows, including "Friends," "Frasier," "The West Wing" and "Law & Order."

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