NBC Universal: Naming The Heir Apparent

Industry followers have long been watching GE's NBC Universal, speculating about when CEO Bob Wright would be out. Last week two veteran execs left NBC for CEO jobs at AOL and at the parent of Discovery Channel. The departures only increased the murmurs about Wright's future. Would he be out by the end of the year? And who would succeed him? Most of the betting was on NBC's high-profile chief, Jeff Zucker.

We have one of those answers already: according to an NBC spokesperson, Wright will be in place until 2008. And his successor? A high-level insider, requesting anonymity on the subject of personnel, says NBC Universal plans to announce anew executive lineup that will make the succession clear as early as the first quarter of 2007 and definitely by July. The heir apparent will be named to a newly created position of NBC Universal president or chief operating officer, one rung below Wright on the corporate ladder, allowing for a transition of 12 to 18 months.

But who will it be? Zucker, the onetime wunderkind producer of the "Today" show and now boss of NBC Universal's TV arm, has bolstered his already-strong prospects lately. In this new TV season, NBC has managed to climb out of the ratings cellar, with one bona fide new hit, "Heroes," helping fuel the rise. It's one of the few encouraging signs for the network in recent years.

Even so, some observers steadfastly say that Beth Comstock, president of NBC Universal digital media and market development, is also in the running. Comstock, GE's former chief marketing officer and a favorite of GE boss Jeff Immelt, is responsible for the company's digital content and distribution strategy. "Everybody thinks that Zucker has it sewn up," says Nicholas Heymann, a Prudential Securities analyst who's studied GE for many years. "But it would be jumping to conclusions. Beth is being given an opportunity to demonstrate her skills and capability on the digital side of the business, and that's the future."