NBC's Zucker (GE): Strike Talks So Far Are Just Fluff

There were a few interesting takeaways from Jeff Zucker’s lunchtime talk at UBS Media Conference. Amazingly, despite the four weeks of saber-rattling, he said that talks with the Hollywood writers have remained surface-level ahead of Tuesday’s scheduled resumption of talks. “There has been no substantial give-and-take between the sides,” he said. “We will begin a real dialog tomorrow.”

The question of whether GE should be in the media business, or should spin off NBC U, has become standard fare for these  events. Per usual, Zucker parried it by pointing out this wasn’t an issue for the first 19 years of GE’s ownership of the company, but became one during NBC’s ratings struggles over the past few years. This time he added a little drama: Without GE, he said, there would have been no merger with Universal, no $2 billion Olympic deal, and probably no NFL deal, either. Live notes after the jump.

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1:22: If the strike drags on it means no new shows and no point in putting on elaborate Upfront presentations in May. So Zucker suggests cutting the dog-and-pony show and getting right to the negotiations:

“The month-long selling period is the most efficient way to auction off the time to advertisers. I don’t think that will change. Whether we make a grand presentation–I don’t think there is any rule that says we have to do it that way.”

1:18: Recycles the comment about not wanting to “turn analogue dollars into digital pennies.” Should probably retire that one at this point.

1:14: Audience member asks what happens to the local stations when network programming is distributed on Hulu, NBC Direct, NBC.com, etc. Zucker says, hey, it could hurt our stations, too:

“The biggest station ownership group of NBC, is NBC U. So the biggest impact is going to be felt by us. Any move we make digitally with our programming has an impact on us. I think we cannot afford to not do those things–but have to understand there is impact to our own stations when we do that.”

1:11: Zucker clarifies… NBC U cable networks account for 50% of profits, not revenue … says 2008 will be good year for stations with political spending, but “until the network turns around, the stations will suffer.”

1:07: UBS Analyst Aryeh Bourkoff tries broach the topic of a potential spinoff of NBC U from GE. Zucker responds that without GE, NBC U might not have been able to “write a check for $2 billion” for the Olympics, or pay for their NFL rights package.

“Jeff Immelt has been incredibly clear on this.  He is focussed on having NBC U continue to be  part of GE. For 19 years this wasn’t an issue. But NBC U has had a difficult two years…”

1:03: Dodging a question on talks with DreamWorks … “If they were to be available–we have a long history with them–we think the world of the people there. If the opportunity would arise it is something we would look at.”

1:02: Zucker says he’s looking at international cable and gaming as areas of potential acquisitions/growth.

12:59: The strike will have little impact on viewers in the near term. Zucker says the network has plenty of programming through March. On the financial side, NBC’s primetime is only 10% of NBC U rev. So little near-term financial impact, either.

12:53: Says talks with Hollywood writers, which resume tomorrow, really haven’t started in earnest, despite the saber-rattling over the past four weeks.

“It is difficult to understand how they (the writers) can have a sense of where we are given the reality of digital economics are today. It is their decision to go on strike over those issues.”

12:47: Zucker once again reminds Wall Street that lagging NBC network doesn’t matter much to NBC U bottom line. This is a boilerplate stuff from Zucker over the past year:

“In terms of the mix of our assets the name of our company is NBC Universal, NBC gets the lions share of attention–but the fact is NBC is now just a tiny piece of the company. 50 pct of the company is now cable.”

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