Nbc's New Script For Hollywood

General Electric's current marketing slogan is "Imagination at Work." Imagine, indeed, all the possibilities if the proposed merger of GE's NBC division and Vivendi's Universal Entertainment goes through. Universal's theme parks burn through a ton of light bulbs, which they could no doubt buy on the cheap from GE, which would control 80 percent of the combined NBC Universal. Another payoff: the NBC network would start paying itself when it shells out the reported $8 million per episode for "Law & Order" and its spinoffs, all owned by Universal (too bad about the $13 million NBC pays Warner Bros. for each hour of "ER'').

But it will take all of GE's powers of imagination to work through the toughest issue--whether GE can rein in Hollywood's notorious excesses by applying its rigorous "Six Sigma" system, six principles for managing quality control and customer service, among other things. The biggest challenge: breaking the habit of overindulging talent. Director Martin Brest, for example, was able to demand control over "Gigli,'' a Sony movie, even though his "Meet Joe Black'' effort for Universal bombed.

Bob Wright, GE's vice chairman, NBC boss and designated head of NBC Universal, is undaunted, saying GE knows how to make the entertainment biz pay. NBC, he notes, is the No. 1 network in profits. NBC says it can cut as much as $400 million from the two companies' budgets by such moves as consolidating offices. "That's only about 4 percent of our total costs," he says. "That's not a staggering goal." With Universal Studios supplying additional series to the network, NBC Universal is likely to own 60 percent of the shows it runs in prime time on NBC, up from as little as 40 percent. If all this works for NBC Universal, don't be surprised if you see it greenlighting a flick called "Six Sigma.'' After all, it does have a vaguely "Matrix'' feel.