NBC Universal executive to move back to parent GE

NBC Universal executive to move back to parent GE
Beth Comstock’s highest-profile deal for NBC Universal was the $600-million purchase of iVillage. (Virginia Sherwood / NBC Universal)
Beth Comstock, the marketing executive who was dispatched to NBC Universal's headquarters two years ago but never fit into its culture, is returning to its corporate parent, General Electric Co.

She will assume her previous job as GE's chief marketing officer and take on new duties.

Comstock was sent to NBC Universal in late 2005 by GE Chief Executive Jeffrey R. Immelt to prod the company into the Internet Age. Immelt had been frustrated that NBC seemed to lack a digital purpose as more viewers and advertisers were migrating to the Web.

The fact that the powerful GE chief had vaulted Comstock into such a high-level position over several other seasoned NBC executives sparked bitter resentment. Some initially speculated that Comstock, who many remembered from an earlier incarnation as NBC's public relations officer, was in competition to become the next CEO, a job that went to Jeff Zucker 13 months ago.

"Change is never easy. Sometimes it makes people uncomfortable," she said in an interview Monday.

Comstock's responsibilities were expanded last year to include NBC Universal's advertising sales, and her title became president of integrated media.

"The headline for me? The change agent for NBC to take on more change," Comstock said. "When there are ambiguities or some uncertainty, it's my job to help focus things."

The 47-year-old executive had served as GE's chief marketing officer from 2003 to 2005. This time she will be in charge of the Fairfield, Conn.-based company's marketing, sales and communications and of increasing GE's digital initiatives, initially for its consumer health and environmental technologies businesses.

"Beth did a great job defining and growing NBC Universal's digital efforts," Immelt said in a statement, adding that NBC Universal would reach its goal of generating $1 billion in digital revenue this year -- a year ahead of schedule. "I want her to use the same approach to drive digital excellence across GE."

At NBC, Comstock's highest-profile deal was the company's $600-million acquisition of women-oriented website iVillage. The eye-popping price tag opened NBC to ridicule inside and outside the company, particularly because News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch had scooped up social networking site MySpace for less money. Immelt later said that NBC probably overpaid for iVillage, but he was nonetheless glad that the company had bought it.

On Monday, Comstock defended iVillage.

"I've always been perplexed by the perceptions of iVillage," Comstock said. "We've increased our traffic and grown revenues. Sure, there were some integration challenges, technical challenges, and we've made some changes on the leadership side."

Comstock said that iVillage had increased its online display advertising 30% in 2007. She declined to provide overall revenue other than to say that the site was collecting more than the $100 million a year it was generating in 2006, when it was acquired by NBC Universal.

According to ComScore Media Metrix, iVillage had 17.4 million unique visitors in January, up 12% from the previous year.

"Women-oriented content is one of the fastest-growing areas on the Internet. They are playing in a strong category," said Andrew Lipsman, senior analyst for ComScore.

Comstock also said that iVillage helped NBC figure out how to sell advertising in digital media. She acknowledged that an iVillage TV show had been a disappointment but said the site was establishing clearer ties with the morning show "Today," one of the rationales for its purchase.

As part of the reorganization, NBC Universal said, Comstock's duties would be divided among three executives. The digital media team, including Chief Digital Officer George Kliavkoff, would report to Salil Mehta, president of business operations and strategy.

NBC Universal's research department would be added to the portfolio of Mike Pilot, president of sales and marketing. Jeff Gaspin, president of the Universal Television Group, was given interim responsibility for iVillage. The company said it would launch a "virtual women's network" with Bravo Media, Oxygen Media and iVillage.