When Brandon Tartikoff left his job as chairman of NBC last July to head Paramount Pictures, the entertainment industry feasted on an abundant helping of its most essential nutrient: the rumor. Might Tartikoff’s jump presage a Paramount move to buy NBC? Would GE sell?
Five months later, speculation that the Peacock is about to be plucked has acquired bobsled momentum, with several NBC employees and a few Wall Street types convinced that one of many possible deals is all but signed. One scenario has Paramount buying NBC Entertainment and cutting back its prime-time programming. Another grind of the rumor mill has Disney, which is in severe need of studio space and planning a $600 million expansion, purchasing the network’s real estate and perhaps making a run for NBC’s entertainment division as well.
If Paramount does buy NBC, the big winner in the would-be deal is clear: Tartikoff. He’d become king of a much higher snowcapped mountain if his studio’s assets included a major TV network. Since Tartikoff has already brought NBC’s programming values to Paramount (he rushed the studio’s All I Want for Christmas through a TV-style shooting schedule), the fit would be a natural one.
Who loses? GE. Any sale would represent a tacit admission that the company’s seven-year attempt to become a broadcasting presence has failed. ”GE wants to bail out,” says Ken Auletta, whose best-seller, Three Blind Mice, chronicles NBC’s corporate woes after the GE takeover. ”They’re making no money in prime time, no money in sports, no money in daytime, no money in news. NBC had six strong years with record profits, and this year it probably won’t be No. 1. (GE chairman) Jack Welch is an impatient guy. If one of his companies isn’t No. 1 or No. 2, he loses it.”
In any event, no studio seems willing to buy NBC News. Whom does that leave? At the top of most guess lists is Ted Turner. ”CNN might be interested,” says Auletta. ”They’d love to have access to Tom Brokaw, or to put the CNN logo on NBC’s news broadcasts.”
NBC had no comment on the speculation, but the network’s employees are looking for hints in every corner. ”A month ago,” says one staffer, ”one of the panels on the peacock in front of (NBC’s Burbank) building was broken, so they had to take the whole thing down to fix it. I’ll tell you, rumors were flying then — they’re taking the peacock down and putting the mouse ears up! That had us going for a while.”
— With reporting by Alan Carter and Benjamin Svetkey