NBC May Soon Be Up for Sale

NBC | Elliott Yamin | Vanity Fair | A&M Records

NBC May Soon Be Up for Sale

While the media world keeps the phone lines buzzing over the promotion of 41-year-old Jeff Zucker to CEO of NBC Universal, there's also speculation about why he was chosen.

Sources tell me that NBC and other parts of the NBC Universal Entertainment division may be for sale. In fact, I'm told that before he left (or was pushed out), Bob Wright wrote such a plan and discussed it at length with GE's Jeffrey Immelt.

"The plans were drawn up on paper in 2005 and 2006," an inside source told me Tuesday. Wright did not return calls Tuesday.

"GE wants out," a source familiar with the higher echelon goings-on at the company told me. "That's why they put Zucker in. He can spin everything off."

One longtime NBC producer didn't exactly confirm this, but did tell me that "such conversations have been had from time to time. But they had more to do with Vivendi's 20 percent and what to do if they decided to sell."

But another big NBC Universal player had a different take on the situation.

"NBC is on the upswing. I think CBS will be the one with an aging audience. Why would GE want to get rid of NBC?" my source said.

Either way, this much seems to be true: In 2004, there was talk of doing exactly this when Vivendi had the option of selling their stake to GE and getting out of the business. They chose not to, and put their hopes in a turnaround at NBC.

"I know that took place," another source said. "Whether it was revived again the next year, I don't know."

One thing's for sure: The NBC establishment — the old hands — is not crazy about Zucker's appointment. But Immelt made his decision in early November and chose this week — after all vacations were over — as the time to announce it.

One person who is not happy, obviously, is Bob Wright. Even though Wright let the network announce the news of succession with his usual grace, he sent out a slight jab at Zucker elsewhere.

On the site for Autism Speaks, a foundation that Wright and his wife Suzanne started together, the outgoing CEO posted a note Tuesday morning that didn't refer to Zucker by name, but simply called him a "venerable" employee whom Wright had mentored. Later in the day, the entire post was removed after this column mentioned it to Wright's assistant.

Wright isn't the only one at NBC who is having troubles with Zucker. Sources say "Saturday Night Live" producer Lorne Michaels is still smarting from the whole "30 Rock" vs. "Studio 60" debacle.

Indeed, "Studio 60" — which sources say costs almost $2 million per episode — is being pulled from the schedule to make way for Paul Haggis' "The Black Donnellys."

Originally, "Donnellys" was supposed to replace "ER," but that show rebounded while "Studio 60" — Zucker's pet project — lost more than half its lead-in from "Heroes" on Monday nights.

Making Michaels unhappy isn't smart, but making "Law & Order" producer Dick Wolf angry may be worse. This winter, Zucker is said to have held fast in negotiations with "Law & Order: SVU" stars Mariska Hargitay and Chris Meloni.

This column reported in December that it looked like the pair would leave the show because NBC refused to pay them what they were asking. Recently, though, the two sides came to an agreement.

As for the plan to sell: My sources say a "spin-off" might include sending NBC-owned units like Bravo and USA Studios to a company like Cablevision, which has expressed interest in them.

At the same time, MSNBC is also an issue. The hope, apparently, was to sell it to part owner Microsoft. But another source tells me: "Bill Gates doesn't want it."

Stay tuned, because this is going to get interesting.

An 'Idol' Restored: Elliott Yamin's Got a CD

Jennifer Hudson isn't the only "American Idol" loser who's bouncing back in a big way.

Elliott Yamin, a favorite from last year's "Idol," has made a deal to release his first CD on March 20.

Ironically, it's with the same company that rejected him when he finished in third place last season.

In a unique deal, Yamin was signed to Sony/ATV Music Publishing — the same company that is part-owned by Michael Jackson. Their chief, Danny Strick, then turned around and proceeded to make a CD with him. Red Distribution, part of the Sony BMG family, will release the record.

It's a little strange, since Sony BMG's J Records and 19 Entertainment, which make all the exclusive deals with "American Idol" contestants, passed on Yamin.

"They may have had their hands full," Strick told me. "But we really liked Elliott and we knew he had a fan base, particularly a female one."

The aspiring pop star is now managed by Jeff Rabhan's Three Ring Projects.

A few of the songs on Yamin's album will be from the Sony/ATV vaults, which should make Michael Jackson happy.

But Strick tells me that Yamin will also include some of the favorites he performed on "Idol" like Leon Russell's "A Song for You." Josh Abraham, who's done the honors for everyone from Courtney Love to Staind, is producing.

Strick says, by the way, that this is just the beginning of Sony/ATV getting involved in the recording side of the business. The company has just struck a deal with the great Roberta Flack to record an album of Lennon-McCartney covers — aka songs from the Beatles catalogue.

'Vanity Fair' Oscar Coup

Could it possibly be time for the Vanity Fair Oscar issue? Indeed, it is. And to their credit, the newly multicultural magazine features Chris Rock along with Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Owen Wilson on the cover.

Inside, the mag decided to do something different to get away from its annual photo album of stars. Instead, Annie Leibovitz and Michael Roberts collaborated on a staged fictional film noir with Hollywood's finest playing parts written by Nathaniel Rich and Jim Windolf, with help from Bruce Handy.

In "Killers Kill, Dead Men Die," a cast of three dozen celebs are photographed as if in stills from this fake cinematic production. It's an impressive gang, including: Robert De Niro, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole, Kate Winslet, Forest Whitaker, Dame Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz and Pedro Almodovar.

Nearly all of this year's Oscar nominees are involved with the exception of Leonardo DiCaprio, Eddie Murphy and Meryl Streep. Even Jack Nicholson posed, as did Anjelica Huston. Very clever.

My favorite piece so far, however, is Nancy Jo Sales on Brett Ratner. Who else but the director of the "Rush Hour" movies buys a famous Hollywood mansion and installs his grandparents in the guesthouse?

Grammys Warm Up: A&M Remembered

So now that it's below zero in New York, I guess the answer is clear: No more Grammys in the Big Apple.

The last time the show was produced from here, there was a similar freeze situation and some ice. Lots of complaints, too. No matter how you slice it, Los Angeles is the town for awards shows in winter.

As we wing our way to Hollywood, here are some of the anticipated high points of the weekend aside from Clive Davis' extravaganza. The newest rumor is that Jennifer Hudson will perform her songs from "Dreamgirls."

Among the events: A post-Grammys tribute to A&M Records founders Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert, which should rope in a galaxy of their grateful stars from Sting to Carole King, Joan Baez, Garland Jeffreys, Captain and Tennille and Peter Frampton.

Cat Stevens should try and make this; the pair gave him his career. So should Richard Carpenter. Billy Preston also had his big hits — "Nothing From Nothing" and "Will It Go Round in Circles" — on A&M.

The A&M artists most hoped for at this party: Cheech and Chong. Best A&M single ever: Lee Michaels' 1971 hit "Do You Know What I Mean?"

I don't know what happened to Lee Michaels, but this is his plug. Woo!