The Peacock Storms the Net

NBC Universal digital chief Beth Comstock is being groomed for bigger things. But first she has to conquer the Web.

By John Heilemann, Business 2.0 Magazine columnist

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- One morning last fall, Beth Comstock checked out the New York Post and found that she'd been Page Sixed. An item in the ber-gossip column quoted an anonymous "insider" describing Comstock, NBC Universal's president of digital media and market development, this way: "She's lethal. She could take out your kidney, and you wouldn't know it was gone."

An executive with thinner skin might have been annoyed or dismayed. But Comstock tells me that, to the contrary, "I got a big chuckle out of that one."

IS YOUTUBE FRIEND OR FOE? "It's a little of both," says Beth Comstock, NBC Universal's president of digital media and market development. "Within our company, we have different, conflicting needs."

As the dagger jutting out of Comstock's back demonstrates, life hasn't been much fun lately for digital honchos inside traditional media companies. Fox's Ross Levinsohn, CBS's Larry Kramer and AOL's Jonathan Miller all fell (or were pushed) from their perches during a few weeks last fall.

But as Comstock's good humor about the knifing suggests, she's a notable exception to the rule. Since she's only been on the job for a year, the jury is still out on the moves she's made and the direction she's taking NBCU. Nevertheless, not only does her position seem secure, but she appears to be gliding on a fast track to grander things.

Comstock brought an unusual resume to the post of digital poobah. She wasn't a programmer, a techie or a financier; her background was PR. After toiling as a publicist for NBC, CBS (Charts) and Turner, she rose to become General Electric's (Charts) first chief marketing officer in more than 20 years.

Comstock's first year at NBCU was marked by a flurry of Web-centric activity. In March the network paid $600 million to acquire the Web 1.0 women's community portal iVillage. It started streaming its shows on its own site (including original Webisodes of "The Office") and selling them via iTunes. It relaunched and It struck a deal with MSN to distribute a piece of Web-video programming, "A Big Life With Sissy Biggers." It expanded its "digital studios," a team of some 30 creatives that Comstock says are "producing everything from gaming applications to good old-fashioned storytelling." It even hosted an online holiday party in the virtual world Second Life.

Some of this stuff seems to be working. Launched in October, the company's ad-supported streaming service, NBC Rewind, saw its traffic quickly rise to a few million video streams per week. Also, according to ComScore, iVillage's unique visitors increased from 13.4 million during February to 17.7 million in October, elevating the site from the 43rd to the 34th most trafficked destination on the Web. And Comstock says iVillage accounted for roughly a third of the $300 million in revenue NBCU brought in last year. Although she didn't engineer the acquisition, Comstock is especially animated on the subject of iVillage.

"On the TV side, 35- to 45-year-old women are a big chunk of our core audience," she says. "So iVillage aligns well, and it's helping us to bridge the analog and digital worlds." By way of example, she points to the December launch of "iVillage Live," a daytime TV program with both studio and online audiences - where the latter can offer questions and comments in real time and then buy products featured on the show.

Yet other NBCU digital initiatives have fallen flatter. An effort to persuade advertisers to employ its digital studio to produce online advertising for them - or what Comstock calls "holistic rich media experiences," whatever the hell that means - has conjured little interest. The Second Life gambit was simply lame.

And then there's NBCU's relationship with YouTube, which has been a study in corporate schizophrenia. Last February, when the "Saturday Night Live" clip "Lazy Sunday" hit YouTube - triggering millions of streams and helping turn the service into a mainstream sensation - NBCU sent a nastygram demanding that about 500 clips be taken down. But four months later, NBCU reversed course, announcing an alliance with YouTube whereby the company would furnish promotional clips and buy advertising on the site.

Today, when I ask Comstock if YouTube is friend or foe, she haltingly replies, "It's a little of both," adding that "within our company we have different, conflicting needs." Meaning that while NBCU loves the promotion YouTube gives its shows, the company's chairman and CEO, Bob Wright, views the service as a copyright scofflaw and its new owner, Google (Charts), as a "legitimate defendant," as he told The New York Times.

Neither NBCU's confusion nor Comstock's lack of clarity about YouTube is at all unusual, of course. Both reflect the fundamental ambivalence among traditional media companies about the most potent and transformative aspects of the Web.

In Comstock's case, that ambivalence is only heightened by the nature of her position at NBCU. On the one hand, none of the company's content businesses reports directly to her; on the other, she reports directly to Wright. So on questions such as YouTube, she's pulled in opposite directions.

Meanwhile, because she's more of a bureaucratic wrangler than an operating executive, it's impossible for her to impose coherence on the company's digital direction. Thus NBCU's online efforts, though bustling and ambitious, often seem inchoate - like an assortment of stuff flung against the wall in the hope that something sticks.

What Comstock has going for her is her willingness to experiment and her understanding that experimentation will often lead to failure. "We're planting a lot of seeds, and they're not all going to flourish," she readily admits. "We are going to have to prune and prioritize; in the next year to 18 months, you'll see us start to focus on fewer and fewer things."

Comstock also has support from her masters at the top of NBCU, especially GE boss Jeff Immelt. Indeed, as rumors swirled late last year about Wright's likely retirement in 2008, and as a number of top NBCU executives departed the company for other outfits, Comstock emerged as the only plausible rival to NBC TV chief and longtime heir apparent Jeff Zucker. All of which suggests that Comstock is as skillful a corporate scrapper as her Page Six admirer suggested.

So I ask if it's true: Could she really remove my kidney without my noticing?

Comstock laughs. "Look , I'm on a good path here. I think I'm going to grow. But I'm not ready for Bob's job yet." That "yet" is duly noted.

After this story went to press, Bob Wright stepped down from his position as chief executive of NBC Universal. On February 5th, Jeff Zucker was named as his replacement, effective immediately.

John Heilemann wrote "Pride Before the Fall." His next book is "The Valley." He lives in Brooklyn.


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