Like a good TV series, Bob Wright’s memoir leaves fans wanting more. In “The Wright Stuff,” the former NBC boss engagingly takes readers behind the scenes of how he built the U.S. network from a struggling laggard to a profitable powerhouse over two decades at General Electric. Negotiations with Jack Welch, Bill Gates and Ted Turner enhance the drama. Wright’s moving account of his grandchild’s autism, however, would have better suited a second book.
Wright delivers his tales from the trenches in bite-sized anecdotes featuring a range of media figures including news anchor Tom Brokaw and cable mogul John Malone. They make the book enjoyable, but also don’t leave much room to explore too deeply the board intrigue and executive clashes Wright experienced. It’s obvious, for example, that his relationship with Welch, the vaunted GE boss, was complicated. The stories, however, only scratch the surface.
Take the informal gathering of company executives before the Masters golf tournament in 2000. “The social event turned tense as Jack turned the post-dinner talk into a makeshift discussion about succession,” Wright writes. “His goal was to address head-on the schism that suddenly developed among board members about whether Jim McNerney or Jeff Immelt (Jack’s personal favorite) should lead.” And yet Wright only tantalizes readers with these proceedings and fails to flesh them out fully.
Even so, his career is a master class in navigating corporate politics. Wright started at the jet engine-to-refrigerator conglomerate in 1969 as an attorney at a power transformer plant in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. By 1986, Wright had climbed the ladder to run NBC, which GE took over that year as part of a $6 billion deal for RCA.
He managed to grow the network by way of acquisitions, including Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo, and startups such as business news network CNBC. The industrial titan turned out to be an uncomfortable owner, however. GE was risk-averse, and thus missed out on multiple opportunities.
One was Turner Broadcasting System. Wright proposed a reverse merger that would have resulted in NBC making TBS a public company controlled by GE.
Wright provides an inside account of just how badly the meeting went between Welch and Turner, the entrepreneur who started 24-hour news network CNN. Famed for his Six Sigma organizational strategy, Welch couldn’t stomach Turner and his flamboyant personality. The “mouth of the South” also wanted a seat on GE’s board as vice chairman. At one point, in Wright’s telling, Turner started barking like a dog to prove he could be subservient to the larger company’s board.
At another meeting, with Gates, the Microsoft founder, at his home near Seattle to discuss their MSNBC partnership, Wright gives an amusing account of a fumbling tech executive trying to show off his palatial estate. “Gates was uncharacteristically outgoing that evening as he ushered us into his elaborate home theater, where he quickly became flustered trying to retrieve one of the thousand-plus films stored there in his personal computer,” he writes.
It would be seven more years before Wright propelled NBC into a media conglomerate. Taking advantage of the debt-burdened French company Vivendi, he struck a deal to buy its collection of entertainment assets. They included Universal Pictures, theme parks and cable networks USA and Syfy. It diversified NBC’s portfolio and made it a stronger competitor against the likes of Time Warner.
In the book, Wright reveals his frustration with how GE parted with his creation after he left the company in 2007. As the financial crisis took its toll on GE, it offloaded NBC Universal to Comcast, which had failed in its earlier hostile attempt to buy a weakened Walt Disney. Wright contends that he had built a business worth $45 billion, one GE sold in a two-part deal amounting to some $30 billion.
In the same year, 2004, that Wright first secured Vivendi Universal in what may have been his professional triumph, his personal life took a dramatic turn. He found out his 2-year-old grandson Christian was autistic. The lack of answers and support prompted Wright and his wife Suzanne, who died last month from cancer, to launch Autism Speaks.
The mental disorder is a complicated subject. Wright’s attempt to bookend the tale of his career at 30 Rockefeller with his philanthropic work is jarring. For instance, he devotes one chapter to the controversial matter of vaccines. It ripped apart Wright’s own family. His daughter Katie, Christian’s mother, told talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey about her belief that the preventative inoculations result in autism. That prompted Autism Speaks to distance itself from Katie’s remarks, which led to Katie urging a boycott of her parents’ organization.
For all the corporate power Wright may have wielded, he was left feeling helpless by this ordeal. He worries about Christian and the family’s ability to care for a growing teenager who will be unable to live independently. Wright’s plight is heartbreaking. Rather than merely shoehorning it into a business autobiography, it deserves its own book.