Will Nbc Mean `Nabbed By Cos'?

For much of the 1980s, NBC's success could be summed up in one word: Cosby. Bill Cosby's phenomenally popular TV series propelled the network to the top of the Nielsen ratings. Now, after plumping up the peacock, Cosby wants to buy it lock, stock, and barrel.

In a move that has surprised and intrigued media mavens, the entertainer has taken the first steps toward acquiring National Broadcasting Co. from owner General Electric Co. Cosby hasn't made a formal offer to GE. But his talent agency, William Morris Agency Inc., informed NBC President Robert C. Wright of Cosby's intentions on Oct. 23. Wright insisted the network is not for sale, according to Norman Brokaw, chairman of William Morris. But the two spoke again by phone on Oct. 28. And Cosby's lawyer, Herbert H. Chaice, says he and Brokaw are lining up bankers to advise them on a possible bid. Executives at NBC and GE declined to comment. Cosby himself also was unavailable.

Cosby is only the latest in a parade of Hollywood honchos who are said to be interested in NBC. Others frequently mentioned are Barry Diller, former chairman of Fox Broadcasting Co., and Martin S. Davis, chairman of Paramount Communications Inc. But these potential suitors have steadfastly declined to comment. Cosby, on the other hand, has taken his quest public even before lining up partners or financing.

That has prompted speculation on both coasts that Cosby is trying to rally partners to join him in a bid. Brokaw points out that Diller is a friend of Cosby. And Cosby recently signed a multiyear film and TV development deal with Paramount. "Bill would probably want to bring in some of his close friends," says Brokaw.

SWOON. Media analysts say that even if GE is willing to sell, Cosby couldn't pull off a deal by himself. The Cosby Show did make its 55-year-old star one of the richest men in Hollywood. His share of the show's syndication profits alone is estimated at $300 million. But GE values NBC Inc.--which comprises the network, its owned-and-operated TV stations, and cable properties--at almost $4 billion. Any buyer would probably have to ante up $2.5 billion just for the core network and its TV stations, says Nicholas Heymann, an analyst at County NatWest Securities who watches GE.

Some observers wonder why Cosby would want NBC to begin with. After all, the network began a long swoon last season as hit series such as Cheers and Cosby grew old or left its prime-time schedule altogether. NBC trails CBS and ABC in the ratings so far this season. Heymann estimates NBC Inc. will make $245 million in 1992, but the core network could lose $20 million. "Why would anybody want to risk their money on that?" asks one prominent media investment banker.

Brokaw says Cosby wants to make NBC a home for innovative programming, though he is vague on the details. Indeed, some observers think Cosby's creative juices could jolt NBC out of its torpor. "This guy knows sitcoms, and he knows game shows," says Heymann. "If he could convince people that he is the programming part of the equation, maybe he could line up financing." Even so, former NBC Chairman Grant A. Tinker says a deal only makes sense if Cosby recruits top managers to handle the network's day-to-day operations. Tinker says he needs "8 or 10 guys running it so he can take time off to do Atlantic City."

Cosby's proposal is certainly a long shot. But there's at least one reason to think that TV's richest performer might be in a gambling mood: His new game show is called You Bet Your Life.