NBC Universal exec’s cable ties add to her pull
Bridget Baker’s corner office at NBC Universal in Burbank is adorned with photos of her hobnobbing with kings.
In one, a young Baker stands alongside a silver-haired Johnny Carson, in another she is mugging with denim-clad Jay Leno, and in a third, she’s rubbing shoulders with bow-tied and bushy-eyebrowed Ralph J. Roberts.
Roberts, the 90-year-old co-founder of Comcast Corp., might not be a household name, but he and his son, Brian, the company’s chief executive, are poised to exert more sway on the future of NBC than the network’s royal comedians.
In the five months since Comcast announced that it was buying control of NBC Universal in a $30-billion deal, Baker has found herself suddenly at the forefront. She is the NBC Universal executive who knows the proposed new owners best. For the last 21 years, she has been negotiating with distributors such as Comcast to secure distribution for NBC’s networks, including not only NBC but also CNBC, MSNBC, USA and Bravo.
“I tell Brian, ‘I knew you back when you had 1.8 million homes,’ ” said Baker, referring to Comcast’s ascension from a small, regional cable operator to the industry leader reaching 23.5 million homes.
If the federal government approves the proposed merger with NBC, Philadelphia-based Comcast will become an entertainment colossus with a broadcast network, cable channels, theme parks and a movie and TV production studio.
Power in Hollywood has long been vested in the studio bosses and programming chiefs who decide what movies and TV shows get made. The “suits” on the business side typically fly below the radar, including Baker, who has spent much of her career traveling to such far-flung places as Fayetteville, N.C., Lubbock, Texas and Libby, Mont., to persuade some of the country’s 1,200 local cable operators to carry NBC’s channels.
“It was never glamorous,” said Baker, NBC Universal’s president of TV Networks distribution. “People ask me, ‘How did you get into the entertainment business?’ and I don’t think of it as ‘the entertainment business.’ I think of it as cable.”
In recent years, cable has become the crown jewel of media giants, keeping them viable during the recession and the decline in DVD and ad sales. Unlike broadcast networks, cable channels have two streams of revenue — advertising and subscriber fees. At NBC Universal, the payments from cable and satellite operators total about $8 billion a year — more than half the company’s total revenue.
That makes Baker one of NBC Universal’s biggest stars because she is responsible for ensuring that pipeline of money continues to flow. Her friendly and effervescent personality, which strikes some as Lucille Ball in an Hermes scarf, belies a hard-nosed negotiator.
“She’s not a traditional business-speak individual,” former NBC Universal Chairman Bob Wright said. “Bridget is more colorful, more personable, more engaging. She has a style that’s unique. Her results have always been excellent.”
David Zaslav, chief executive of Discovery Communications and Baker’s former boss, said: “Bridget is a relationship builder like no other. She has great people skills ... she’s like a quiet killer who has built huge value for NBC over the years.”
Baker sees herself simply as “the interpreter.”
Her role, she said, is to communicate NBC’s objectives (which often means rate increases) to Comcast and other cable and satellite TV companies. Then she relays the operators’ concerns back to her bosses. It was Baker who lectured her superiors on why the cable industry hated Hulu, the popular video website that allows viewers to watch TV shows free, and reminded her colleagues how important pay TV channels have become to the economics of entertainment.
The oldest of three children raised in Alaska, Baker graduated in 1982 from Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., then worked for a few years as a staff member for then-mighty former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). She loved Capitol Hill but wanted to try the private sector.
She was in her mid-20s in 1987 when she landed her first job in the industry, helping negotiate channel space on cable systems for an upstart, the Los Angeles-based Fashion Channel. It was one of the first TV shopping networks, and Baker knew a thing or two about persuasion, and shopping from a catalog.
But the Fashion Channel unraveled. In 1988, she got a call from NBC. The venerable broadcaster was lining up carriage for its entry into cable, a venture called Consumer News and Business Channel (CNBC). “I told them, ‘Good luck with that,’ ” Baker recalled recently, laughing at her youthful arrogance. “I said, ‘Guys, I’ve got a little tip for you. The cable operators hate the broadcasters.’ ”
She figured it would be another short run, given how broadcasters had little experience in cable. In “three months” she would return to Alaska.
In 1989, Baker was part of the team that launched CNBC. A few months later, she moved to L.A. to work at NBC’s West Coast headquarters. At that time, the peacock network reigned supreme and Baker, a plebe who negotiated distribution deals, was given an empty office.
She tracked down the facilities manager.
“I said, ‘I’m out here starting a cable group. Can I get a desk and a phone?’ ” she said. “And he was like, ‘I don’t even know who you are.’ Click. The desk was not there for a few days. We sat on the floor.”
Slowly, the balance of power shifted as the cable industry grew. Baker helped line up carriers for the 1994 launch of NBC’s America’s Talking network, which morphed into MSNBC in 1996. NBC bought Telemundo in 2001 and the Bravo channel in 2002. The game changer came in 2003 when NBC agreed to buy Vivendi’s entertainment assets, including Universal Studios and the lucrative cable channels USA and Syfy.
Baker’s office walls reflect the history of the company and cable. “That’s back when I had poodle hair,” Baker said, pointing to the photo of her with Johnny Carson.
But now the casual familiarity of NBC’s senior team soon could be replaced by Comcast’s all-business approach.
Baker, the indefatigable NBC executive who knows Comcast best, might not be in such an enviable spot. After spending years coaxing cable operators, assuring them that broadcasters could be trusted, she will have to persuade Comcast’s direct competitors, satellite and telephone companies that offer TV service, that she will not favor NBC’s new owners at their expense.
“That’s a formidable array of issues,” said Tom Rogers, chief executive of TiVo, who hired Baker when he was in charge of NBC Cable. “I don’t think it will be as difficult as it was starting up CNBC, when there was an enormous amount of resistance to broadcasters, but there will be tensions of a different sort. But Bridget is up for the challenge. She takes the sting out of the negotiations.”
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