12 to Watch: Beth Comstock

Jan 30, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Beth Comstock hasn’t had her current job for very long, but in many ways she has spent the past several years gearing up for a mission just like the one she’s about to tackle.

As the newly appointed president of digital media and market development for NBC Universal, Ms. Comstock has been charged with mapping out the media giant’s digital strategy and deploying that plan throughout the company. Her first day on the job was Jan. 5.

Ms. Comstock’s role is seen as a critical component of NBCU’s future. Company parent General Electric has demonstrated extreme patience with NBC’s prime-time woes, in part because both NBCU Chairman Bob Wright and GE Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt have repeatedly said that NBCU’s real growth opportunities exist in the digital distribution and new technology arenas. A sign of just how important the role is: Ms. Comstock, who previously was the chief marketing officer for GE and is said to be close to Mr. Immelt, reports directly to Mr. Wright.

Ms. Comstock said her main focus is on “helping to define [NBCU’s digital strategy] and to make it happen.” She added: “There’s so much opportunity out there, we want to look at how to focus on where the economics are.”

In some ways Ms. Comstock’s arrival at NBCU marks a homecoming. Before her seven-year stint with GE, she was senior VP of corporate communications for NBC and served as VP of NBC News communications. She also worked at CBS and Turner Broadcasting. She got her start at a small news service in Richmond, Va., as a reporter.

Ms. Comstock created and ran GE’s Imagination Breakthrough effort, which focuses on hatching ideas that will generate at least $100 million in new revenue. In the past three years the campaign has realized $10 billion in incremental revenue, she said. Ms. Comstock was the brains behind GE’s “ecomagination” campaign, a companywide effort to develop environmentally friendly technologies across all of GE’s businesses. She also led a company strategy to develop high-level relationships with business clients that work with multiple GE divisions.

NBCU is no slouch when it comes to seizing opportunities in the digital realm. NBC content has been distributed on cellphones for some time. Last fall the company struck its first video-on-demand alliance with satellite operator DirecTV. Then late last year NBC joined The Walt Disney Co. in offering prime-time broadcast and cable series for download on Apple Computer’s iTunes Music Store.

However, in naming Ms. Comstock NBCU’s digital media czar, NBCU is acknowledging the need for such deals to funnel through a single executive.

It won’t be easy, but Ms. Comstock said she’s thrilled by the challenge and by the chance to use skills she honed as GE’s marketing chief. “I’m a change person, and this is an area I know, both as an advertiser and a builder of brands,” she said. “I have a line into that world [of media].”

Ms. Comstock acknowledged she will spend her first few weeks learning about a division that has changed dramatically since she was last there. However, she made clear in an interview that she plans to hit the ground running and hopes within a year to have up to a dozen experiments under way to prove the opportunities that exist in digital.

“The sum of the parts is the power of this company,” she said. “My job is to connect the dots.”

At A Glance

Title: President, digital media and market development, NBC Universal

How long in current position: One month

Year of birth: 1960

Place of birth: Morgantown, W.Va.; raised in Winchester, Va.

What to watch for: Ms. Comstock will lead NBCU’s digital media efforts in a high-profile role in which she reports directly to NBCU Chairman Bob Wright.

Who knew? A bit of a gamer, Ms. Comstock boasts of having skills at Ms. Pac Man.