The Wright Era: Q&A with Bob Wright

Apr 2, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Bob Wright, who recently turned over the reins of NBC Universal to Jeff Zucker, has had an extraordinary career thus far.

When Mr. Wright, who turns 64 this month, first joined General Electric — which bought NBC in 1986 — certainly the furthest thought from his mind was that his career path would eventually lead him to the helm of one of the nation’s top TV networks — and that he would hold that position for more than two decades.

That latter fact might be the most astonishing aspect of Mr. Wright’s impressive career. Top executives in Hollywood rarely last that long running the same company.

In his office high atop Rockefeller Plaza in New York, Mr. Wright recently sat down with TelevisionWeek Editorial Director Chuck Ross to talk about the amazing ride Mr. Wright has been on for the past 20 years, from the fear and trepidation those at NBC had when he first arrived to his relationships with NBC legends Brandon Tartikoff and Johnny Carson.

Finally, Mr. Wright is joined by his wife, Suzanne, to discuss Autism Speaks, an organization they co-founded, and an organization to which Mr. Wright will be devoting a significant amount of time now that he has left his post at NBC.

TelevisionWeek: Let’s put ourselves in a time machine and take you back to 1986, when you took over and Grant Tinker was just leaving NBC. You’d had some experience with Cox, but otherwise it was at GE — in GE Financial if I recall — and so this obviously was a whole new animal. I’m just wondering what kind of trepidations, challenges, fears you might have had coming into the job.
Bob Wright: I spent three and a half years at Cox and I was executive vice president of Cox Broadcasting and president of Cox Cable. So I wasn’t unassociated with the broadcasting portion of the business. … Down in Atlanta, where the headquarters were, we also had WSB, which was one of the most outstanding television stations in the country at that time, and had been an NBC affiliate all the way up until the Iran hostage [crisis]. They didn’t switch because of Ted Koppel, they switched about that time because of programming deterioration at NBC.

There was a fellow by the name of Fred Barber who was the general manager there [who] went on to fame and other places, and they had lots of retired and near-retired senior executives in the broadcasting business who lived in Atlanta. So I was not out of the loop of broadcasting and all of its issues, and I was certainly not out of the loop with the NBC problems even though we were an ABC station, because [Cox] had NBC stations. They had Columbus, Ohio. Dayton, Ohio … was an NBC affiliate, and I believe it had the highest ratings, share of audience. It was like 54 share of audience.

TVWeek: So you were familiar with the station side of the business.
Bob Wright: Yeah, I was familiar with the station side of the business, and they also were in the programming business. … Al Mascini’s rep firm was owned by Cox, and Mascini formed several independent television networks. He had prime time, he had daytime network and so forth. So Mascini was our network creation guy in a sense, and the networks of course all cultivated the executives, so I did go to some affairs and what-not. I certainly wasn’t experienced from an NBC network standpoint, but I did know a good deal about the television business from the cable side, where I was most of the time, but also from the broadcasting side.

TVWeek: There was a lot of talk at the time, people were saying they didn’t quite understand why GE would be interested in NBC and were questioning whether it would be a fit. GE obviously is a long way from Hollywood. What made it a good idea?
Bob Wright: Just remember that even though it was never prominent in the GE annual report, GE had been in the broadcasting business from the beginning. GE was one of the founders of RCA. And GE’s television station in Schenectady went back and forth with CBS’s station in Pittsburgh as the oldest two radio stations in the country. And so there was a long, long history of GE in radio and television, but not network television.

The cash flows and the margins and the economics of station business were well-known. I was at GE Capital at the time — as the head of GE Capital — and I had the cable businesses, and I had just actually sold the cable businesses because we didn’t have enough scale. We thought the price was good … and franchising was tough for GE because if GE shows up in a small town, they want the moon. And it was better to be Cox or somebody else that was more normal.

TVWeek: At one point was GE thinking of buying Cox?
Bob Wright: I’ll explain. When cable started to develop and become very prominent in satellite [delivery] — after HBO went on satellite — that changed the whole issue of having microwave delivery, which was very poor quality or inconsistent, and actually people peddling tapes back and forth. So it opened up the opportunities for cable television. … HBO was the most prominent.

So the [Cox] family determined that, gee, there’s a real opportunity here in cable, and they said, we don’t think we belong there because if you win these franchises, if you don’t do anything you’re gonna be small. If you’ve got a franchise and you win, you have to build all these systems that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and we’re a private company. They had just taken the cable company private … and, gee, do we want to be burdened with the risk and the debts of having to do this? And I think they ended up saying no, this is too much for us. So they said we’d be better off to sell all of the broadcasting and cable properties together to a company, but we can’t have any attribution. … We want to be able to be free to do things. So it had to be a very big company.

There were only a half-dozen companies they could sell it to. It was the oil companies and GE. General Motors, Ford, Exxon, Mobil and a couple of others, and GE was one in itself. They actually sent out proposals to each of the companies. It said if you want to buy this company, here’s the bid. And basically GE got into it and GE won the bid. … [But] the price of cable skyrocketed during the negotiating period and GE decided it didn’t want to spend the extra money. The Cox family said the original deal is too light, you’ve got to improve it, and they didn’t. … So there was an experience there that Jack Welch was associated with in 1980, just before he became chairman.

Now you jump forward a couple of years. [Former CBS Chairman] Tom Wyman comes by to GE to talk to Jack Welch and says, would you like to buy CBS? This is 1984. And so Jack comes over to GE Capital — and we look at it because we’re doing [leveraged buyouts] at that time. … So we look at it and [Mr. Welch] would say, “You know, this is a pretty nice business.” We don’t know about the broadcasting, we don’t know how long that will last, but it’s still pretty strong and we could do a lot with it. So we say to Wyman, OK. Then we find out that Wyman made the same presentation to a couple of other different people and then we found out that the board didn’t actually give him the approval to do that, and then they brought Larry Tisch in as a white knight and they fired Wyman. So the deal never happened.

Now a year later, [RCA Chairman] Thorn Bradshaw comes to Jack Welch. He had been there [as chairman] five years [and previously] was an executive with Atlantic Richfield. But he also [had been] a Harvard Business School professor. And actually I think he had a Ph.D. in business administration, and there aren’t many people who have that. And he said, listen, would you like to buy RCA? I see RCA is going to be attacked by these buyout firms, and I would rather have RCA managed by GE than one of these buyout firms. Because, he said, I know what they’ll do, they’ll just … fire all the employees and everything will be horrendous.

So we looked at it. We said there’s several businesses in there that are at
tractive. And our aerospace and their aerospace made a lot of sense together. Those were the principal ones. And NBC was in that package. And we looked at NBC as sort of a stripped-down network.

They hadn’t done anything to expand. They had such a hard time in the early ’80s with programming, and the ratings were so poor. … But then all of a sudden when they brought [Grant] Tinker in for five years, they really got back on their feet. … And that looked like a very promising asset and so [Mr. Bradshaw] said listen, if you want to buy the whole company, you could buy the whole company and get NBC as part of it.

We had looked at CBS two years earlier — not even two years, a year. And so we were prepared for that discussion. And we said listen, there’s just a lot of good reasons to be in RCA and NBC is certainly one of them. We didn’t know how far it would go, but I suggested at the time that we could do a lot with NBC if we got into the cable television business, which they were not in. And they hadn’t been given any extra resources by RCA during that period because they were having enough trouble on their own. So … the first order of business became to establish what we’re gonna do, who’s gonna run NBC. And because I had had some experience at a high level in a broadcasting company and a cable company, and because the part that they didn’t have is the part we were gonna have to get involved in, and I seemed like a pretty good candidate to do this, I got involved. …

But first of all there was an offer to try and have Grant Tinker stay. But Tinker had also made it clear to Thorn Bradshaw that he did not want to stay. And I think that impacted Bradshaw’s view of the sale as well. If Tinker had told Bradshaw that he wanted to stay, who knows? … But he had already told Bradshaw that he was not going to stay. Jack met with Tinker and they had conversations. I wasn’t privy to that side of the conversation, but he said that he did not want to stay. And as a matter of fact, he had planned to go earlier. So he was going to do us a favor and stay a little bit longer, maybe a few more months or whatever. So they made the announcement at the end of 1985 and it took a while to get all the approvals to actually close the transaction and the transaction didn’t close fully until August [1986].

There was a period there where NBC was sort of like at wit’s end, because Tinker was stepping down and who was gonna replace him. He did very careful profiles of his senior executives to try and convince Jack and Thorn Bradshaw that … one of these executives could run the business. And they were all very nice people and they all had good backgrounds.

Jack feared that NBC would be a bit of a lightning rod for investors, even though it was doing much better at that point than it had been — not because there was something unique about NBC, just because it was an entertainment business. I think that Jack felt that [buying NBC] was a very good idea and he was crystal clear in his own mind about it. But there was a lot of pressure brought to bear by investors, especially during that dead period between the announcement and the closing. They confused NBC with Las Vegas. They didn’t understand the cash flows. The people who were investors in GE at that time were not involved in broadcasting or in gambling businesses — Las Vegas. … So Jack went out of his way to tell everybody that it was going to be run like GE and it wasn’t risky and all that sort of thing. So that was another reason to choose me, as opposed to one of the executives who were here. It was sort of a way to say, hey listen, we feel very confident by selecting one of our own executives. …

So that’s how I got into the job. Now the awkwardness was that Grant was viewed by NBC as the savior of the network. [The NBC] stations were always kind of like the second team in the network television business in that period and the period preceding it. The reality is they generated all the money, but it was always seen that the focus was always on the network people [and not on the station people]. And Grant had given the network revitalization and Brandon Tartikoff had become a star under Grant. So it was difficult. It was very difficult to enter that world, and there was no prior announcement. It was very sudden. They didn’t get a chance to vote and they didn’t get a chance to digest it. I just appeared on the scene and I appeared with no help.

TVWeek: We all joke about the suit; now you become the quintessential suit coming from the new corporate owner.
Bob Wright: I thought I had figured this out pretty well, and I spent a lot of time thinking about what I was going to say because I had had the opportunity to be a president, if you will, for other businesses. So I knew I’d made mistakes like we all make, and I knew that clarity of communication was always the best thing to do. And I thought about just going in there and saying everything is terrific, just go back to your offices, I’ll call you when I need you. But that’s a silly thing to say. The only thing I didn’t take into consideration was the fact that there was never any love lost between NBC and RCA. I didn’t realize the level of animosity that existed. RCA was viewed as the bad guy to NBC. And right after I got here, for a while it was endless stores about how they had been abused by RCA.

And so what happened is GE very conveniently fell into that pattern. It was like, gee, we got a worse one. It’s the same thing all over again. … Grant Tinker is gone and now we got RCA back again only it’s called GE and it’s worse. We’re only gonna die. So it was a very difficult period.

TVWeek: Was there a moment or a period of weeks when you realized this is going to work and these people are sort of accepting of who I am? That they know GE is not going to be the bad step-parent that they thought it was going to be?
Bob Wright: Well I think the senior people on a face-to-face basis were fine. They were mature, considerate, they were quick to argue their point of view, which is fine and I don’t have a problem with that. But what happened is that there was an awful lot of secondary discussion going on. And unfortunately, all that secondary discussion got out into the press. And that’s not the way that GE would have operated in other businesses.

And it’s not the way industrial businesses would operate anyway. And that was a different issue. So it’s sort of like, at one level everything was OK and on another level all the stuff was bubbling up: Oh my God, we’re gonna die, it’s gonna kill us. So that was very difficult for GE’s investors to take too. They weren’t used to that. And because it’s a New York-based business, all that stuff was in the press. And then Jack realized that he wasn’t going to be exempt from this either. It wasn’t just me that was going to get tarnished on this; he was going to get tarnished. So Jack came down a couple of times and made some very forthright statements. He found himself in the press the next day defending them, with no context of what it was all about and so forth. … That was a difficult proposition.

TVWeek: How did you overcome it? You just persevered?
Bob Wright: Well, I tried to be very frank with people. One of the things I did know is I knew that the GE investors … were all represented at that time — and still are, but not the same way — by financial analysts. Those financial analysts, even if they didn’t know anything about broadcasting, knew a lot about numbers. And because RCA was a public company and NBC was a big part of it, they published a lot of facts about NBC. And because Jack … got into NBC before the thing was approved, they had access to an awful lot of data. So what they were doing is they were looking at overhead ratios … they were looking at program costs. They had more facts than the people inside of NBC had.

Now the chief financial officer, a fellow by the name of Don Carswell, had all those facts, but he wasn’t used to sharing those facts with all of his executives under the theory that (a) th
ey didn’t need to know, (b) they didn’t care and (c) he didn’t want it to get out. So I realized that the management team didn’t really know what the financial analysts did. So I went in and I told them. I said … you’re on a trail to earning $150 million this year. That’s your estimate here. It’s August. And I said, if I was an analyst, I would say you should make $180 [million] because of this, that and the other reason. I said, you know, they’re gonna see this. I may be three days ahead of them, but I’m not five months ahead of them. And we’d better get ourselves in alignment here. As a part of GE we’re going to have to live with this expectation level. We’ve got to get ourselves in alignment with what we should be doing or explain why we can’t do it. …

This was sort of in the middle of [NBC’s] party. They were celebrating their good fortune [after Tinker and Tartikoff had turned the network around] and all of a sudden in comes [GE with the attitude] gee that’s not good enough, we gotta do better. And I think that was a tough one. And part of the frankness of explaining that to people is it got passed down through the ranks. … And the guys in the ranks, all they knew was that they had to either cut costs or they had to increase revenues, and how could this be? We’re celebrating. So that was not a pretty picture at times.

TVWeek: The business is cyclical. NBC’s been on top and NBC hasn’t been on top.
Bob Wright: It’s much better when it’s on top.

TVWeek: Was that hard for you personally, having come from a business that maybe didn’t have that kind of cyclical nature? Or did you find those kinds of cyclical things at GE Financial?
Bob Wright: No, I had, fortunately, very good experience in cyclical businesses. My first exposure with GE was in the electrical manufacturing business … which was under enormous financial pressure. And I got to see executives operating in a very difficult economic environment. It was all union, expensive costs, in the early 1970s and no pricing. … Later [I was] in the plastics business, which made Jack famous. And that was a very volatile business, because it depended on feed stocks and [like] today, every time there was an oil incident there was an economic incident. It was very closely aligned with the automobile business, too, which was also cyclical. …

I had been there in the best years and the worst years. I was actually the head of strategic planning in exactly the worst year they had, in 1975. So I had seen the top to the bottom. I remember when I was at Cox we had some difficulties. … So I was familiar with situations that weren’t spectacular.

TVWeek: But is there a fundamental difference? It seems that the cyclical nature of the network business depends on a creative product that is maybe different than you had experienced in those other businesses.
Bob Wright: Well, except that it also is a function of the economy at the time. If you have poor programming in good years, it’s a lot less painful than having poor programming in bad economic years.

There weren’t many bad economic years for the broadcasting business. But I did run into a set there between 1990 and 1993, which were really tough years for advertising — the only tough years since World War II. We caught a bad period, and that’s of course when we had programming problems during that period. And it really compounds the issue and makes it harder. It’s a little analogous to what we happened to go through in this last couple of years here, where the market has been a tougher market than we previously had. So that’s a rough period. There’s no question.

TVWeek: Let’s talk a little bit about Brandon Tartikoff. Many people say that he was a programming genius. He obviously was instrumental in Grant’s turning the network around. Talk a little bit about your relationship with him if you would.
Bob Wright: I really enjoyed him. And I learned a great deal from him. He was never teaching. It wasn’t like he was a professor. I thought he just had a lot of ability. He worked very hard. He was a guy who worked hard to be creative. He set very high standards for himself and I was always amazed how harshly he judged everything. He did not let himself almost ever get publicly attached to success. He was always critical. And I think he understand the fact that the successes are very ephemeral and a show could just as easily fail as succeed, and when you get one that succeeds you’re very fortunate and you don’t let it go to your head. … He was very much a realist. He definitely was open to creative ideas. I think he also had been through a terrible period.

TVWeek: You mean creatively?
Bob Wright: Creatively and personally. Personally, because he had Hodgkin’s disease, discovered almost right after his big success, in the middle of it. So his party didn’t last very long. His congratulatory party didn’t last long. He got Hodgkin’s. And he got a reprieve. Of course [later] he died from Hodgkin’s. …

He had gone through a period of being associated with enormous failure, and Fred Silverman caught a lot of that flak. But then Brandon caught a lot of that flak. He failed a lot before he succeeded. And I think he always recognized that issue. He wasn’t a guy who showed up on a successful day and things went downhill. He knew good solid products and interesting creative made him successful and he always wanted to keep it going. And I think when we were very successful — most successful in the period of ’88 and ’89 — he was desperate for more hits because some of those shows, “Cosby” was getting older, we had four or five shows, had “Cheers” and “Cosby” and “Family Ties.” Those were the horses. And we had just gotten off the horse with “Miami Vice” and with “The A-Team” and a couple of others that were big horses too. So he was just a very special guy.

TVWeek: After Tartikoff you had Warren Littlefield. Not easy shoes to fill. Did you think he was successful?
Bob Wright: Warren Littlefield succeeded. Warren Littlefield had been [Tartikoff’s] right-hand man. … Warren had plenty of experience and he had all the knowledge in the world, and Perry Simon was his partner in crime and they did a very good job. They picked a lot of good shows and they got a lot of things on, and it was another one of those periods where you just can’t seem to win but to losing. That’s a period where “Seinfeld” was really developed after being a pilot, and we had … its companion show … “Mad About You.” …

They were very strong shows. And Warren was judged very harshly because he was judged by the very success he participated in with Brandon. … When you look back, though, I got Don Ohlmeyer to come over [as president of NBC West Coast] in 1993 and we got healthy very quickly. And Don was a very big contributor, but the programs that got us healthy, [the key one]was “Frasier,” and that was a spinoff of “Cheers,” and Warren was really the guy who developed that and got that on the air.

But Don did bring a whole different life and energy to the place, and so he gets a lot of credit. It wasn’t just like he was there, he was a reinvigorating kind of a guy, bigger than life. We can do this, guys. We can do this. … The great part about it is that people do make a difference. They really do, and as executives once removed from that, it’s hard to know when to get anyone to get out. And I think you can get that same comment from Michael Eisner , who was [at ABC parent Walt Disney] for many years, and he had big success when he got involved in programming directly. And that’s been the truth, I think, for most executives who try to come down from on high to fix the programming. The track record does not look very pretty in that period.

TVWeek: Did you try dabbling in that every so often?
Bob Wright: Well, they all reported to me. Everybody reported to me during that period. So I did the best I could to encourage; I did the best I could to not make money a problem. And we had money problems
, but I did the best I could never to say no to a program project that they were really interested in. I honestly don’t think that we ever passed on a show during the difficult period because we didn’t have enough money. I can say that. We passed on shows that were expensive, but principally because they were just as expensive and not as good as we wanted. Not so spectacular and expensive.

TVWeek: Please talk about your relationship with Johnny Carson, which a lot of people found very interesting because Carson was known as a very private man and you clearly developed a friendship with him.
Bob Wright: Well, actually the friendship developed, ironically, through Wimbledon. We were to have the Wimbledon tournament and Suzanne and I would go there regularly during that period of time in the ’80s and ’90s. Carson loved tennis, and he would come to that tournament and he’d spend a couple of days and he liked to be left alone. I mean, how can you be left alone at Wimbledon? You have to eat someplace. You can’t sit out there in the hot sun all day by yourself and so you’re gonna move around and so forth. So I knew he was coming the first time and I made a point of saying hello to him and there was no particular sparks. …

I think the first issue was Suzanne and I just forced ourselves on him and his wife because we wanted to clear the table to give them some breathing room. And he had some friends with him, so we almost were like [conversation killers, so these other people would leave Carson alone. Then] we started to hit it off and, it was just that personality thing. And actually Suzanne hit it right off with him from a style standpoint. They’re both very frank people, say what’s on their mind, and he really enjoyed that. And we had funny thoughts about lots of things together that had nothing to do with his show or whatever. And that began to be something.

Then we had a bit of a rough period where Johnny was like at the end of his career and he felt like he was being sort of forced out. The press was doing a good job with forcing him out and making it look like he was under pressure and everything. And he didn’t like that at all. And it wasn’t much he could do about it. He was so conscious — Johnny was a lot like Jerry Seinfeld … he was very concerned about the quality of the show. He agonized about every little detail. … I’m not saying he was anal about it, he just was very concerned about the quality of it. And since the show is different every night, it’s not an act. You can’t just say I’m going to polish that up again, I didn’t deliver that joke well. Once you deliver that joke, it’s over. There’s no second shot. The show was live. … He only had one chance to do it, think about it. All those famous things we remember, they only were one-shot events.

So I think in the end he was worried that he was under a lot of pressure, should he step down or stay up? … I was at Carnegie Hall with him and that’s a period where I did know him pretty well. And we were at Carnegie Hall and he was going to come on. And I don’t remember exactly — it was a two-year deal. Maybe it was a three-year deal. But it was something like that. And he was going to acknowledge everybody, and he gets up there and I said OK John this is terrific. I’m so happy you’re gonna be with us for three more years or whatever. He said no, I’m only gonna stay for a year. One more season, this is it. … And he wouldn’t answer any questions or anything. So the whole press after that was just about what he said, why he said it, was he upset and so forth and it became, was it Jay Leno who did it and who was it? Helen Kushnick was representing Leno and she was a very, very difficult person to everybody. And she had a terrible reputation in terms of her relationship with people and anger and hostility and all that. So that was an awkward period.

But [Johnny and I] started to see each other whenever I would come to L.A. He would invite me to go up to the house or we’d have dinner. We’d have dinner in Beverly Hills, and then we went on trips together. Then he wanted to buy a boat and I like boats. And I didn’t make the decision with him right then, but he brought me with him when he was making the decision to buy this boat. It was in Marina del Rey. It was a beautiful boat. And he bought the boat, now he’s retired and he used to like to go down on the boat and I would go down and see him on the boat. Pretty soon we’re taking trips on the boat. It was a lot of fun.

TVWeek: So you stayed close to him even after he was retired?
Bob Wright: Oh yeah, much closer after he was retired than when he was working.

TVWeek: Outside of the thing he did on Letterman, I don’t know if he ever was on television after he retired. Letterman I think was in L.A. and Carson came out and all he did was sit behind the desk and sort of wave to the crowd, and I think that was it. I don’t think he was ever seen again on TV.
Bob Wright: Again, I’m using an analogy, I don’t want to push it, but it’s a little bit like Jerry Seinfeld. … He was very proud of his work. He did not want to revisit a second coming of his work. He did not want to try to go back and do it again, reformat it. He didn’t want to be on stage being a caricature of himself.

And he just did not like awards, period. He didn’t want to go on stage. He didn’t want to be celebrated. He didn’t want to be eulogized.

He was notoriously consistent with that view. The only award that I remember that he accepted was an award from the NAB. And the only reason he accepted it is it was presented to him by President Reagan. …

He also accepted the Presidential Medal of Honor in Washington. I went — he invited me and Suzanne as his guests.

TVWeek: He wasn’t going to do the talk thing again, and that’s what he was known for. I guess he just found that there was nothing else for him to do in entertainment.
Bob Wright: Well he had a hundred offers a week. He just didn’t want to do it.

TVWeek: Was he happy?
Bob Wright: He fully entertained himself, very much so. In later years he got very much into his boating. He got bigger and bigger boats. And he had a very facile mind.When we took the trip to Russia, he spent eight months learning to speak Russian. And he spoke Russian by the time we got there. Then we took a trip to Tanzania and he spent almost a year learning to speak Swahili. And he could speak Swahili.

So he set goals for himself in terms of things that interested him. When he’d do these trips he would become very much into the geography, the history of where we were and the customs, the mores and things like that. And he followed television all the time. He watched everything.

TVWeek: Was it a difficult time for you figuring out who was going to succeed Johnny Carson?
Bob Wright: Well, it was very awkward. It was a very difficult situation. We had David Letterman, we had Jay Leno, and Leno had the advantage of actually being on the show with Johnny at the same time period in front of the same audience [as Johnny’s guest host]. And David had the advantage of being a very hot late-night star doing a very different gig than what Carson was doing at that point in his career. … It was hard to compare and there were a lot of issues back and forth as to who was the better fit for it. And I think in fairness, we opted for trying to keep them both. Why give up one to get the other? You already lost Carson, so let’s not lose anymore. And I was certainly an advocate of that.

So my issue was to try to get Letterman to stay and have Leno be the replacement for Carson. Because Leno didn’t want to do the “Letterman Show” and that really wasn’t his show. And Letterman, I never fully appreciated how much Letterman wanted to do the Carson show, in fairness. But that all played out in kind of a half-open manner. But Jay, with the absence of a few weeks in the first season, has beaten Letterman consistently during that entire period of time, which is a long, long, long banner.

Why do you think that is?
Bob Wright: I think that Jay was very comfortable with the Carson audience as it existed when he was on that show in the late ’80s and into the ’90s. He related to that audience very well. And he didn’t have to change his shtick. When he took over for John, in some marvelous [manner he] re-created [the] way he could be himself. The audience liked that.

TVWeek: In all those years that you were in charge of the network, what are the two or three biggest changes in the business that you’ve seen over the years?
Bob Wright: I’d say the things that are surprising are how well broadcasting has done relative to the cynics and the critics and the estimators. The other thing that’s surprising is given all of the fractionalization that exists, that shows like “Idol” can draw 35, sometimes 38 million viewers. … It’s not our show — I wish it was our show — but it’s a uniquely broadcasting thing.

TVWeek: Is the appeal of that show is because it’s Joe American or Josephine American and they’re being voted on by Joe and Josephine American?
Bob Wright: I think it’s hard to answer that directly. That’s a factor. I think it’s also the fact that they picked singing. And singing, we have 300-plus-million Americans here and most international pop stars key off of British and U.S. talent and … when you have 300 million people, you can run out and audition people that can be as good as the professionals. And so people compare and these people compare favorably. And their performances post the shows have shown they compete from the moment they leave. It’s like they go right into Major League Baseball and they play. So I think people see a real talent sort of thing there. But Ed McMahon, for how many years — 12, 14 years — he must go to bed every night crying. “I invented this format.”

Broadcasting can do this. “Heroes” is doing 12, 15 million [viewers]. “Desperate Housewives” did 28 million people in its first season. … But these numbers can shine through. So I think that’s a surprise. It’s a good surprise. The other one — which isn’t as good a surprise — is that despite all the history, we still haven’t figured out how to really develop hits.

“Idol” was rejected by every network. … “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” were both rejected. So we still don’t have that ability to concretely say we’re building a hit here. We don’t know how to do that.

TVWeek: We’ve talked before about “The Sopranos” and the memo you once sent out asking people in the industry whether NBC could put such a show on the air. NBC has a show on now, “The Black Donnellys” — is that the network’s attempt to do “The Sopranos”?
Bob Wright: Paul Haggis is the writer on it and I don’t think he took any particular unique direction from us on it, he wrote what he wanted to do.

TVWeek: I think that David Chase saw Haggis’ “EZ Streets,” because certainly that was the predecessor to “The Sopranos.”
Bob Wright: It certainly has elements of tight-knit people who are over the top, but … my point in sending out the “Sopranos” [memo] was that I just didn’t believe that we could do that kind of a show. And people kept saying to me why don’t you do it? … And I said OK, here, watch an episode and tell me where we put this. How does this work? And they all wrote back and said, well, of course you can’t use that episode — or any of the others, for that matter. It is a great show [but] you can’t use it. You should clean up all the language, we can’t have any of the sex and the violence, but it’s a great show so when are we doing it? I said I just gave it to you.

In 1970 I took a leave of absence from GE and I became the law secretary to the chief federal judge in New Jersey. And the reason I did that is because my close friend from law school had been the clerk before me and he called me and said you’ve got to come down here and you’ve got to take my job. … He knew I liked criminal law and litigation. And he said you have the hottest litigation package in front of a judge in this country — the first interstate racketeering case. It’s all about the mob. There’s a guy by the name of Sam DeCavalcante. He said they got him, he’s a huge mobster. … The U.S. Attorney’s Office is bringing up a hot shot; they’re all mob-proof on this case, clean and everything. He said you’ve got to do this. Plus we have product liability litigation. He said we have a litigation calendar you would dream of in law school to ever have. So long and short, I did. I came down and sat through months and months of Sam “the Plumber” DeCavalcante.

That was Tony Soprano. And the government made a decision to try to have people see what criminals are really like. A book was published with all of the wiretaps. … It was called “Sam the Plumber.” He owned the Kenilworth Heating and Plumbing Company in New Jersey, and he lived, I swear to God, either in Livingston where Tony lives or right next to it. And he lived the same way Tony lives, the same kind of a deal. And he looked like the chairman of the board of General Motors when they brought him into the courtroom. And the tapes are full of all the language, the Vinnies, the Three Finger Browns, all that stuff. [“Sopranos” creator] David Chase knows all about that.

TVWeek: Suzanne Wright has joined us. And what I want to talk about is what you’re going to do from here on out, Bob. Obviously I know one of the big things that’s important to you is a foundation that you’ve started called Autism Speaks. I know this has a real personal connection to both you and Suzanne with your grandson, Christian.
Bob Wright: Autism Speaks is actually an operating charity. We have 132 full-time employees now and 350 volunteers located in 31 states. It is not a foundation in the sense that Suzanne and I are writing checks to charitable organizations. We’re doing it. And we’re involved in research, we’re involved in awareness, which is advertising awareness, and treatment and in trying to make life better for people with autism, but really trying to get to the cause and cure.

We interface with government agencies, we interface at the state and the federal level with a very active organization. We have a board of 24 different people now coming from all walks of life. Mel Karmazin is one of my board members, as an example. And we’re a very active, energetic board. Bernie Marcus is the person who economically was my first big supporter. He has given me a tremendous amount of money to get this thing started, and he has a long history here. So that is a big part of what I will be doing for some period. And Suzanne is the co-founder of this organization with me and is the whole life spirit of it.

TVWeek: I was shocked when you folks first told me was how common autism now is in this country. What is that number?
Suzanne Wright: When [Christian was] diagnosed two years ago, it was one in 166. And we left Columbia Presbyterian here in the city having no idea — and here we’re in the media — having no idea that these numbers were that high. Two weeks ago the [Centers for Disease Control] reissued those numbers. It’s now one in 150. … It’s worse than anybody had anticipated and it’s not getting any better. So we have a real epidemic on our hands.

I couldn’t believe when this happened to me, the desperation of this community. … I went to the school district looking for services for Christian. Basically, they could only give me the minimum. They couldn’t wait until I left town. I didn’t have time to sue the school district, so I did, I left town. And I came here into the city, where the school was $100,000 a year, and we’re hopeful of getting Christian back.

See, Christian has regressive autism. That’s on the rise. Regressive autism is where the little boy or girl is developing perfectly, meeting the milestones like Christian did — Christian had a huge vocabulary, potty trained — and then what happened in the period of two and a half months, basically, he started really losing ev
erything. [This generally happens at 2 years of age.] And five doctors told us don’t worry [and told us] the old wives’ tale that boys regress, that they’re not as quick as girls. That’s all nonsense. You can’t allow that in the day of autism. So my message to young parents is that if you think something is wrong, you need to act immediately. And also getting grandparents — it was very hard for me to tell my son-in-law and my daughter that I really thought something was wrong. Nobody wants to be that messenger.

TVWeek: Of course.
Suzanne Wright: And you can alienate your family by being that messenger. But I was willing to take the risk and [that’s part of what we’re doing with Autism Speaks — raising awareness]. Much like AIDS was a taboo, even breast cancer, nobody wanted to talk about having breast cancer. We have to take the stigma off so grandparents, everybody, will feel at ease to talk to each other about it [if they think] there’s an issue going on with the child.

TVWeek: And Bob, unfortunately, there is a high incidence of divorce when this is diagnosed in a family, right?
Bob Wright: The divorce rate is 80 percent. It just puts so much strain on the marriage. The child requires so much attention and the mother, regardless of whether the mother or the husband is working, the mother ends up being the one who has to quit and has to stay with the child and go through this period of developmental disorder. … The statistics say for fully half of the children that we see who get early diagnosis and intensive therapy up to the age of six or seven, that probably half of that group is able to matriculate into a public school environment. And therefore you have a shot, a good shot, of not being exactly normal, but getting close. [But] it puts tremendous pressure on everything you do and think, not to mention the enormous expense this generates.
Suzanne Wright: We produced a movie, “Autism Every Day,” and it was accepted into Sundance for a special screening. Not only was it sold out, there was a waiting list to see this movie. In this movie a father talks about hoping that a little boy would go into the pond on his property and drown and the mother talks about — she works for me now — how it was so difficult for her to sit on the George Washington Bridge one day with her daughter who was just diagnosed with autism and [how she wanted to] just end it all.

TVWeek: Can you give us any message of optimism?
Suzanne Wright: I think the message of hope is that, as I said before, if you suspect something go and get to a doctor and if he tells you the old wives’ tale [go to another doctor]. Because if you suspect something is wrong [and] if you get it early enough, [you have a] 50 percent chance of getting your child mainstreamed.

TVWeek: Is it a problem where throwing enough money at it will help us find out why this is happening so much, as well as helping these kids to live a life that’s more independent?
Bob Wright: Well there’s no question that money plays a good role here.
Suzanne Wright: Oh sure, look what it did for breast cancer and AIDS.
Bob Wright: You have to throw a lot of money at this. There is money that’s been invested here in genetic work, and I think most people who follow autism scientifically would suggest that genes have a great deal to do with both the cause and the cure. The theory is if you can identify the genes then you’re closer to being able to do something about them. … But that’s also a very, very expensive process. And it takes a long time. And so it doesn’t create the kind of hope for parents who currently have [autistic] children. And our [job is to] balance that — we have to try to help parents with children right now, but we have to help the community by zeroing in on the cause, and that’s where genetic work becomes critical.
Suzanne Wright: I believe there’s a cause, there’s a genetic predisposition, but I believe there’s an environmental factor going on here that’s putting these kids over the top.
Bob Wright: While we believe the genes play a role in this, there’s clearly all sorts of difference in these children. So it’s not like one set of genes, one set of kids. The kids develop this in different periods and have different impacts, which clearly identifies there’s some environmental experience that takes place that sets off some subset in these children. And there has been almost no money spent. And this is very tough scientific work to do. It’s epidemiology and everything. There just hasn’t been the motivation on the part of the [National Institutes of Health] or the part of the CDC to be able to do this, much less the funds. And lastly, there is this issue of looking for biomedical markers, which is another way of saying let’s move away from the gene search, let’s look at conditions that we see and let’s look at the children who have these particular conditions, how they differ from other children. …
Suzanne Wright: Something happened to Christian. Something happened to him.
Bob Wright: We’re on a hunt. We’re going to be on a hunt for biomedical markers, which is not the same as a gene search. … I think we’re three or four years away from accomplishing quite a lot. That’s what I believe.
Suzanne Wright: And we got a lot accomplished already. We got the Combating Autism Bill passed. It was signed into law. [And on March 20 Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., introduced the Expanding the Promise for Individuals With Autism Act of 2007.] …

We’ve now merged with every major autism group in the country. So we are the largest. And I was just invited to Qatar by the princess and the amir because she is having a symposium over there for special needs children … and over there it’s taboo talking about this. And so she’s invited me to come over with the Ad Council because … her people were most impressed with how broad the Ad Council campaign was over the last year and how much it spread across the country. So … I’m going over there with the Ad Council and we’re going to give an hour of Power Point presentation. She’s going to let me show my movie. Only three movies are going to be shown and mine’s one of them. … It’s going to be very global, because it’s a global problem.