In 1986, when Robert Wright went from running GE’s finance division to running NBC, David Letterman joked that his new boss was going to order up a miniseries on the toaster oven. Twenty-one years later, Wright has had the last laugh – expanding the stand-alone network into a diversified media giant, thanks in part to 2003’s $14 billion acquisition of Universal’s movie and cable properties.
Last month, a few days after Wright announced he was stepping down, GE chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt called speculation that GE was looking to sell NBC “stupid drivel.” Wright, who retains the title of GE vice chairman, begs to differ, claiming he wouldn’t be surprised if the company eventually spins the network off.
In an exclusive interview with Tim Arango, he raised another interesting scenario: Early next year Time Warner can separate its cable business from its content businesses without incurring a large tax liability – an event, he says, that could spur efforts to combine NBC Universal and Time Warner, parent of Fortune’s publisher. “It would be a great combination,” he says. Following are other excerpts from their conversation.
Over the years GE has considered spinning off NBC. Would you be surprised if in three to five years NBC Universal was not part of GE?
I wouldn’t be surprised. I also think Immelt means exactly what he says. He wants it to be successful, and he wants it to stay part of GE. I understand that very well, because when this business is operating well, it’s a very attractive part of GE. And where it can be difficult is, if something isn’t perfect in the business, its imperfections become a noisy part of a company like GE. There may well come a time, and I’m not saying it’s anytime [soon], where the fit isn’t as good as he’d like. And he has to manage his portfolio.