In NBC's new fall comedy, "30 Rock," General Electric Co. dispatches an executive responsible for producing microwave ovens, played by Alec Baldwin, to run its venerable broadcast network. These days, that premise doesn't seem so far-fetched.
On Monday, a rising GE star became the seventh key executive from the parent company to join the ranks of NBC Universal, its subsidiary based at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York. Michael Pilot, who ran GE's equipment finance division for nearly three years, will take over NBC Universal's advertising sales.
The move has fueled speculation that GE Chairman and Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt is taking an active role in shaping the leadership structure of the entertainment company in preparation for the eventual retirement of NBC Universal Chairman Bob Wright after 20 years at the helm.
A heavier-handed management approach is a shift for NBC. Wright enjoyed great autonomy under Immelt's predecessor, legendary GE boss Jack Welch.
"They got a free pass for a while from GE," said Edward Lawler, director of the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business. "NBC performed reasonably well, and their business is not like others within the GE structure. But that time [of autonomy] might be over."
NBC Universal did not make any executives available to discuss the latest management moves, which included several promotions from within its existing ranks. In an e-mail to employees Monday, Wright said, "This is a testimony to the outstanding bench strength and depth of management talent within NBC Universal."
In addition to reassigning Pilot, NBC Universal on Monday also expanded the portfolio of another GE alum, Jay Ireland. To his current duties managing NBC's group of TV stations, Ireland adds Spanish-language TV network Telemundo, NBC network operations and affiliate TV station relations.
Ireland, chief financial officer for GE Plastics before joining the broadcast network in 1999, picked up several divisions that had reported to Randy Falco, one of three high-level NBC Universal executives who left the company during the last month. Falco, a 31-year NBC veteran, defected to Time Warner Inc. to become chairman of its AOL unit.
As part of the recent management upheaval, NBC Universal also lost its cable operations chief, David Zaslav, who was named CEO of Discovery Communications Inc. Last week, Advertising Sales President Keith Turner resigned.
In addition to Wright, Ireland and Pilot, four other ranking executives came from GE, including Lynn Calpeter, NBC Universal's CFO; Marc Saperstein, head of human resources; and Beth Comstock, GE's chief marketing officer whom Immelt sent to NBC Universal a year ago to head the company's strategies for digital entertainment.
Another former GE executive, John Eck, received new duties Monday and will report directly to Wright. Among other things, Eck is responsible for information technology, television and studio facility operations, and engineering and real estate.
"There is a long history in GE of strong management training," said USC's Lawler. "The way that they have done that is by rotating executives from one business unit to another. Bob Wright was really the exception to that."
After GE bought NBC in 1986, Welch installed Wright as the head of the network. For years, Wright battled perceptions that he was a corporate suit sent in from GE Plastics, but he is credited with expanding NBC into cable, Spanish-language programming and movies through the purchase of Vivendi Universal's entertainment assets. Instead of moving to another GE division, Wright stayed at NBC, which makes up about 10% of GE's segment profit. He also was named vice chairman of GE.
"NBC was doing well, and they had no incentive to move him on," Lawler said. "He went native and bought into the NBC culture."
NBC Universal executives stressed Monday that the company has a greater number of top managers from entertainment than have transplanted from GE. They include NBC Universal Television Group CEO Jeff Zucker, who is in line to succeed Wright, 63; NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly; NBC Universal Television, West Coast, President Marc Graboff; Jeff Gaspin, president of NBC Universal cable entertainment; and Universal Studios President Ron Meyer.
Pilot comes to NBC Universal from GE's heavy equipment finance group, where he served as president and CEO since January 2004. During his tenure, his group expanded its assets by more than 50% to $25 billion and doubled its net income to nearly $500 million. He was featured in a September Harvard Business Review article titled "The New Science of Sales Force Productivity."
Hiring someone from outside the media landscape to run advertising sales "is unusual for the industry but not uncommon for NBC and GE," said Bill Carroll, director of programming for Katz Television Group.
"Sales is sales; he'll just be running a different aspect of it," Carroll said. "What sales managers are really doing is managing and motivating people. You can take those skills and translate them. He will be able to make that transition."
Pilot made light of concerns that GE executives were taking control of NBC. He told an internal NBC newsletter Monday that he was happy to be transitioning from the sale of dirt-moving equipment leases to 30-second advertising spots. Quipped Pilot, "I'm looking forward to playing the real-life counterpart to the character that Alec Baldwin plays on '30 Rock.' "