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Comcast buys GE's stake in NBCUniversal, ending a long run
Although Comcast's announcement a little while ago to buy the remaining piece of NBCUniversal from General Electric may have little immediate practical impact on the shows and networks that millions of people watch, a significant piece of television history has now come to an end. The days of GE are officially over.
NBC and GE's ties go all the way back to 1926, when the radio network was launched, and GE - hoping to sell a few radio sets - owned a minority stake in the new network, or 30 percent to RCA's 50 percent. (Westinghouse owned the balance.)
And you surely remember that famous chime - "N! B! C!" - which you used to hear every time the Peacock unfurled his feathers? Per TV lore, the N was "G" on the music scale, and the B was an "E." In other words, it was in tribute to one of the owners. True? Who knows, but it is a memorable story.
Antitrust laws forced GE had to shed the stake in 1930, but the company would circle back in 1985, when it announced a $6.28 billion cash deal to buy RCA, which then was full owner of NBC. (Deal closed the following year.)
The GE years were enormously controversial and productive. Culture shock was profound - at first GE wanted to zerobase every single expense, and force the famously profligate TV business to bow before accountant gods of GE, led by Jack Welch who brokered absolutely no resistance. There was a long period of anxiety and instability - profoundly felt in the news division. (Read Ken Auletta's excellent "Three Blind Mice" for the full story.)
But at some point - hard to say when - NBC became part of GE, and oddly enough, some of NBC's free-wheeling culture was absorded into GE. Bob Wright, a brilliant numbers guy who was brought in to tame the wild culture of NBC, slowly-but-surely taught the TV business to the suits in Fairfield, Ct. He was also an energetic deal maker who expanded NBC's portfolio - particularly in cable - dramatically.
Rocked in other parts of it empire and looking to shed the increasingly volatile TV business which after all had no strategic fit whatsoever (and never did - but that's a whole other story), GE finally said enough and sold a majority stake to Comcast in January, 2011.
Today's deal for the portion of the company that it doesn't already own - for $16.7 billion - was expected, but a big part of TV history has also come to an end.