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It’s a Wrap: GE, NBC Part Ways, Together They’ve Changed History

The sale of GE’s remaining stake in NBC Universal (NBCU) to Comcast today caps a historic, century-long journey for the two companies that gave birth to modern home entertainment. Together they’ve built the first TV and radio sets, pioneered commercial broadcasting, and launched the consumer electronics industry.

GE co-founded NBC’s former parent, RCA, in 1919, and pushed to commercialize radio broadcasting, then as new as the Internet not so long ago. “Prior to 1920, most Americans couldn’t even fathom the idea of voices and music coming into their homes over the air,” according to RCA history. “But the availability of free over-the-air music and information fueled tremendous growth, with sales of in-home radio sets growing from 5,000 units in 1920 to more than 2.5 million units in 1924.” At the time, GE was using the RCA brand for its radios.

RCA launched NBC in 1926, and in 1928 started the first regularly scheduled U.S. television programming in Schenectady, New York, then the site of GE headquarters. The station aired two-hour broadcasts on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, to the homes of GE engineer and radio and TV pioneer Ernst Alexanderson and two GE board members.

GE sold its stake in RCA in 1932, but two companies reunited in 1986. By then, RCA had built NBC into a large domestic broadcast network. With GE at the helm, NBC added a string of big TV hits branded as “Must See TV.” They included series like Friends, Seinfeld, ER, Frasier, West Wing, and Will & Grace. In sports, the network broadcast seven consecutive Summer Olympics, starting with the 1988 games in Seoul, and NBA games during the great run of Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls. The combination delivered what was for many years the most profitable line-up on television.

In 2003 GE bought Vivendi’s entertainment assets, and the investment gave NBCU access to global movie franchises. In 2012, Universal Pictures had its best worldwide box office year in the studio’s 100-year history, with global theatrical grosses of more than $3 billion and seven movies that crossed the $200 million mark worldwide, more than any other studio.

Starting in 2006, NBCU bulked up its sports lineup with the launch of “Sunday Night Football,” and the 2009 and 2012 Super Bowls. The programming, combined with the highly successful London Olympics, helped NBC to become a leader in TV sports.

In 2009, GE sold majority ownership of NBCU to Comcast for $8 billion in cash and reduced its share from 80 percent to 49 percent.

“This is the right time to for us to accelerate our investment in our core businesses, and it’s the right strategy for our investors,” said Jeff Immelt, GE chairman and CEO. “Moving forward with this transaction makes me even more excited about what we can achieve in 2013.”

Said Immelt: “I want to wish the very best to all of our friends at NBCU, and thank them for their great work with GE over the years. I look forward to following their continued success.”

GE engineer Edward St. Louis in one of the earliest television screenshots. imageA New Era of Entertainment: An ad for the world’s first TV showing in a Schenectady theater. imageThe first Teleopticon TV set had a tiny screen just a few inches across. imageGE engineer and radio and TV pioneer Ernst Alexanderson is watching television at home with his family in 1928. imageEarly GE radios carried the RCA brand. imageInside a GE radio factory. Sales of home radio sets grew from 5,000 units in 1920 to more than 2.5 million units in 1924. imageInside a GE radio factory. Sales of home radio sets grew from 5,000 units in 1920 to more than 2.5 million units in 1924. imageThe dawn of a new entertainment era. imageEarly GE radios carried the RCA brand. imageBefore Law & Order: Launched in 1928, The Queen’s Messenger was the first TV drama. imageBefore Law & Order: Launched in 1928, The Queen’s Messenger was the first TV drama. imageAlfred E. Smith’s acceptance of the Democratic nomination for President in August 1928 was the first remote TV news broadcast. Image Credit: Museum of Innovation and Science

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