A day later, Mr. Roberts was standing in the lobby of a Marriott hotel in Baltimore, where his daughter was playing in a squash tournament, when Mr. Immelt called his cellphone.
“I want you to know that I’m going to study this,” Mr. Immelt told Mr. Roberts. The two agreed that measures should be taken to ensure secrecy and that only a handful of executives should be informed. Mr. Roberts, who had the failed hostile takeover bid for Disney behind him, had one requirement: he said he would not participate in an auction.
“We’ve got to be monogamous,” he said.
Mr. Immelt’s evolution in thinking about NBC had come over the last year as his company’s fortunes were battered during the financial crisis. In the weeks after Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy, Mr. Immelt had spent many hours on the phone with the Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson Jr., worrying about the conglomerate’s fate.
In the beginning of 2009, as the stock market continued to plunge and G.E. hovered as low as $5.87 a share, Mr. Immelt listened to presentations about its assets at a management retreat, where his thoughts began to crystallize. NBC Universal, whose cable channels continued to do well but whose flagship broadcast network was deteriorating, no longer appeared to be core to the business and he thought his capital could be redeployed better elsewhere.
Comcast had also undertaken an internal review to consider where the company could grow by acquisition. It considered buying another cable company, a mobile phone company or even Facebook. At one point, it considered acquiring Viacom, which owns several cable networks but is unencumbered by a broadcast network, but Sumner M. Redstone, the controlling shareholder in Viacom, was not interested in selling.
As the spring wore on, G.E. and Comcast met repeatedly, trying to come up with a structure for the deal. By August, the broad points, in which Comcast would acquire 51 percent of the company, with G.E. holding 49 percent, were agreed upon. G.E. can begin selling its remaining stake back to NBC three and a half years after the deal closes at a 20 percent premium to the market value. However, it would have to share 50 percent of any increase in the value of NBC with Comcast.
The deal nearly fell apart several times. Once, when it seemed that it had been derailed over price and structure, Michael J. Angelakis, Comcast’s chief financial officer, flew to the summer home of Keith S. Sherin, G.E.’s chief financial officer, in Cape Cod and took him and his wife out to dinner to put the deal back on track. By the end of dinner, they had shaken hands.
The largest complication was that Vivendi, the French conglomerate that owned 20 percent of the company, could force G.E. to pursue an initial public offering if they could not come to terms on a deal.
Even within the last two weeks amid a constant stream of leaks, it appeared the deal could collapse. Vivendi wanted to value the business at $6.1 billion; G.E. wanted to value it at $5.5 billion. They ended up at $5.8 billion, but there was still a worry about what would happen if G.E.’s deal with Comcast were blocked by regulators.
Mr. Immelt, after attending the state dinner last month at the White House, flew to Paris to persuade Vivendi to complete the deal. An agreement was reached over the weekend after he offered to pay Vivendi $2 billion even if the Comcast deal collapsed.
For nearly six months, only a small cadre of G.E. and Comcast executives knew about the deal — nobody at NBC was ever told — and it had not leaked. On Sept. 30, several hours after the talks were disclosed to a tiny group of executives at NBC, the blockbuster talks appeared on TheWrap.com, a Hollywood news site.
“I’m telling you to be prepared for this to leak,” Mr. Sherin had told Mr. Angelakis earlier that day.