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The VUE From Here

Three years ago, I observed in this space that five companies controlled nearly 90% of the prime time TV audience and sagely predicted the five would become four "when General Electric tires of the Peacock and sells it to Time Warner."

As Ted Turner will tell you, that was Time Warner's play. NBC would have given it the TV-station group it needed, the No. 1 network and a first-class news operation to complement CNN.

Of course, we all know what happened. Time Warner went ahead with its merger with AOL and became so financially hobbled after the dotcom bust that it can't afford a tail feather, much less the whole bird.

And over the course of the past three years, NBC has demonstrated that it is predator, not prey. It bought Telemundo, Bravo and a big chunk of Paxson. Now, thanks to Jean-Marie Messier and the mess he made of Vivendi Universal Entertainment (VUE), NBC is on the verge of adding two major cable nets and a major studio.

This should be good news to the self-appointed guardians of the public interest who think big media has gotten too big, although they won't see it that way.

NBC's takeover of VUE guarantees that, for the foreseeable future, there will be at least five voices in prime time each evening. That might not sound like a lot, but it is two more than when I graduated from college in 1976. Then, it was just ABC, CBS and NBC.

I caught consumer advocate Gene Kimmelman doing the same-old-same-old on CNBC last week after the NBC-VUE deal was announced. He whined that, because GE owned NBC, the network would be reticent about reporting on GE misdeeds like dumping toxins in the Hudson River.

Even if true—CNBC anchor Bill Griffeth protested that it wasn't—there are still plenty of others to keep an eye on GE, including Disney, News Corp., Viacom and AOL Time Warner. Each has plenty of news outlets eager to latch on to a story of corporate malfeasance. This is not to mention purveyors of news like the Washington Post Co., The New York Times Co. and Tribune Co.

I wonder if it occurred to Gene that it was GE/NBC that was giving him a national platform to bash the GE deal. That fact alone pretty much undercuts his argument.

I'll stick with another prediction that I made in 2000, if only to give Gene and his crowd something to gripe about. The remaining "independent" TV networks will eventually get soaked up by the Big Five. They include the Discovery networks, Scripps' cable holdings including Food Network and HGTV, and Cablevision's WE and AMC.

A wild card is Comcast, which could emerge as a sixth major programmer by rolling up some of the indies and launching a few new ones. As the largest cable operator in the land (it serves 21 million homes), Comcast can create networks overnight. In fact, it is bankrolling TV One, a new African-American network that will challenge Viacom's BET.

It is a good thing that GE-owned NBC will be sticking around. It's a pretty classy organization as TV companies go. It has not only dominated prime time for years, it has done it with some great shows. For me, Cheers
and Hill Street Blues
defined TV in the '80s as Seinfeld
did in the '90s. Who knew that creative excellence and GE penny-pinching could thrive together?

NBC also runs the kind of TV stations the FCC and the public-interest types say they want: plenty of involvement in the community, solid newscasts. And they don't give the financial folks in Stamford much reason to complain.

Despite all you read in these pages about the great schism between networks and their affiliates, we couldn't find any to complain about NBC Universal, although it means a further shift of the company from broadcasting to cable. NBC has been working hard to include its affiliates in its plan.

All of this is a credit to Bob Wright.

Or, as Jim Keelor, president of Liberty Corp., a TV-station group with nine NBC affiliates, so colorfully put it: "It's a wonderful deal for NBC and a legacy for Bob Wright, not that he needed one. They've become a media monster with this deal. For those people who said GE wanted to get out of the media business, they're in it with both feet and a big butt." Make that both claws and that famous multicolored tail.

Jessell may be reached at