From Studio 6B at 30 Rockefeller Center, NBC brought Milton Berle, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson into the nation’s living rooms, then broadcast local news to New York City for decades. Last Thursday, it was a stage for a cable takeover as Comcast announced a plan to acquire NBC Universal.
There, in Studio 6B, a town hall meeting for NBC employees opened with Jeff Zucker, the NBC Universal chief executive, introducing “our new friends from Philadelphia,” and closed with a formal welcome to the Comcast family by Ralph Roberts, the cable operator’s 89-year-old patriarch. Mr. Roberts received a standing ovation.
For employees of the oldest and most storied part of NBC Universal, the broadcast network, one question lingered: will we fit into this cable family?
The studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza — and shows like “30 Rock,” which parodies NBC’s corporate culture — will not be going dark as a result of the deal. But employees inside both the thriving news division and the ailing entertainment division of the National Broadcasting Company still have reason to be anxious about it.
At every turn, Comcast has emphasized to its own shareholders that the deal’s purpose is to gain control over NBC Universal’s fast-growing cable channels. The writer and humorist John Dillon observed Thursday that in the 2,742-word news release about the deal, the broadcast network was not mentioned until word 2,170. There is even talk of changing NBC Universal’s name to play down the broadcast association.
The deal is structured to give Comcast a controlling 51 percent interest, with its partner, General Electric , initially retaining 49 percent.
“Everyone’s now talking about NBC as a cable company, and Comcast is a cable company,” a longtime NBC News staff member said. “I guess we’re wondering, do they like broadcast?”
On the record, they do. Comcast says NBC and its affiliate structure will remain intact for the time being. All day Thursday, Brian Roberts, the chief executive of Comcast, whose fortunes have come from converting broadcast viewers into cable customers, talked up broadcast as “an important part of the fabric of America.”
“We’re very committed to trying to see ways to make it successful,” he said in an interview on the cable channel CNBC. (See interview below.)
Later, in a conference call with reporters, the first question was about the viability of broadcast, leading Mr. Roberts to say of NBC, “I think there’s more upside than downside.” He said Comcast would seek to “restore it to No. 1.” Similarly, the G.E. chief executive, Jeffrey Immelt, said on CNBC the same morning that his “top priority for next year” is to get NBC back in first place.
“Let’s make no mistake, where we are today as a broadcast network is unacceptable,” he said. “And I share responsibility with that. That is job one.”
Even as its news programs remain top-rated, NBC has seen its fortunes fall sharply in the last decade. In prime time, the network ranks a distant fourth, and its 10 p.m. program, “The Jay Leno Show,” is increasingly the butt of jokes.
The network’s “Saturday Night Live” alluded to the network’s losses over the weekend, with the host of “Weekend Update” joking that the final sticking point to the deal was “G.E. convincing Comcast that it’s still 1996.” With that, the logos for NBC’s “Must See TV” shows of the 1990s — “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and “E.R.” — were flashed on the screen.
The weakened state of the network aside, NBC employees said in interviews that they only sensed low-level anxiety about Comcast’s takeover, in part because changes are not expected until after the deal closes. The companies expect regulatory approvals to take a year or more. But one of the staffers acknowledged, “Some of us are worried that they’re going to have sticker shock over what it takes to do it on the broadcast side.”
Some employees said they were relieved to hear Comcast executives say at the town hall that widespread layoffs were unlikely because there is little overlap between the two companies. The employees requested anonymity to speak candidly and describe the town hall meeting because they were not authorized by the network to speak.
Strumming a Comcast-branded guitar to celebrate the Comcast news on Thursday, Conan O’Brien, the host of “The Tonight Show,” joked about the deal having “no apparent redundancy issues.”
If anyone feels redundant, it would be the NBC affiliates that deliver their signals over the air; they will now be part of a company that provides its programming via cable. Mr. Roberts said in interviews that he did not foresee changes to the NBC affiliate structure, but was not specific about how far into the future he could see.
Comcast has not yet contacted the affiliates. “From what we’ve read and what we’ve seen, their interest in content certainly aligns with ours, so there’s reason to be optimistic,” said Michael Fiorile, the chairman of the NBC affiliates board and the chief executive officer of Dispatch Broadcast Group, which owns NBC stations in Indiana.
Comcast could toss a lifesaver of sorts to the broadcast business by supporting per-subscriber payments to stations, or so-called retransmission agreements. Comcast was noncommittal about retransmission last week, saying only that it hoped to play a constructive role.
In a letter aimed at Washington lawmakers and regulators who will scrutinize the deal in the coming months, David L. Cohen, an executive vice president at Comcast, expressed support for NBC on Thursday. He wrote, “Notwithstanding the turbulence in the current media marketplace and the ongoing threats to the business model of a national broadcast network, the combined company remains committed to continuing to provide free over-the-air television” through its owned and operated stations and its local broadcast affiliates.
Comcast also said it would “preserve and enrich the output of local news, local public affairs, and other public interest programming” on NBC’s stations. Public interest groups opposed to the deal called Mr. Cohen’s letter weak, noting that it did not make any funding commitments for local or national news.
Not surprisingly, Comcast did not commit to keeping the name NBC Universal after the deal closes. Internally, the company will house its stake in NBC Universal inside a unit called Comcast Entertainment. Some Comcast executives are keen on using the Comcast Entertainment name in the future, although it is doubtful that the “NBC Nightly News” will become the “Comcast Nightly News” anytime soon.
Talking to CNBC on Thursday, Mr. Roberts suggested that the NBC name sometimes distracts from the fact that NBC’s cable channels are “fantastic.”
“In a way, sometimes their name gets in the way of that,” Mr. Roberts said. He started to say that he had talked about that fact with others, then cut himself off, saying instead, “we’ve joked about that.”
Tim Arango, David Carr and Bill Carter contributed reporting.