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NBC’s Nasty Secret 

What’s behind the network’s refusal to pay domestic benefits for its gay and lesbian employees?

Thursday, Jun 19 2003
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NBC loves its hit queer comedy Will & Grace. But in the real world the network still refuses to provide same-sex domestic-partner benefits to its gay and lesbian employees.

NBC has become the lone big-media exception when it comes to offering benefits for the same-sex partners of its gay-mafia employees. Viacom, AOL Time Warner, Disney, DreamWorks — even the evil empire News Corp. — have for years provided their partnered gay employees the same benefits they offer straight married ones. Over the past decade corporate America has warmed to the idea of providing benefits, with close to 200 of the Fortune 500 companies coming onboard, including blue chips like Ford, IBM and AT&T. It’s no surprise that companies loaded with creative types would have jumped on the bus early, but NBC, through its corporate parent, General Electric, has so far resisted requests from gay-employee groups and outside organizations to make the change.

NBC is as major a media company as they come. Besides network offices in Burbank and New York, NBC owns and operates 14 affiliated TV stations across the country (including KNBC-TV Channel 4 in L.A.), as well as the MSNBC and CNBC cable networks. No NBC executives would talk on the record about its policy, and referred all calls to G.E. corporate headquarters in Connecticut, which also wouldn’t answer questions, but did forward a statement confirming that the company did believe in diversity even if it didn’t provide the benefits. One Burbank-based gay exec was somewhat sympathetic, noting that any 315,000-employee company in 100 countries can’t do things on the fly. “It’s tremendous and I understand that,” the executive said, but added, “To be the holdout company in entertainment is insulting.”

Another senior gay NBC exec on the East Coast chalked up G.E.’s reticence to its corporate culture, noting that a light-bulb-and-turbine-manufacturing company is going to have trouble understanding it’s not taking care of the gays, unlike the senior staff at Viacom or Disney, which is wholly consumed by the entertainment business. The exec didn’t have much to say about Sony, another conservative multinational manufacturing company that earns only a fraction of its income from its entertainment division, but has offered domestic benefits since the mid-1990s.

“At this stage of the game we’re kind of left with companies with a homophobe at the top or an old guard,” said Sherry Boschert, a member of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, a group that has been encouraging big-media firms like NBC to add the benefits for over a decade. “There are plenty of companies that have done this.”

 

If you prod them, NBC execs love to lay the blame at the feet of former G.E. CEO Jack Welch, who supposedly didn’t like the idea. (Welch, of course, liked getting all sorts of expensive perks, like stadium boxes and private jet flights, from G.E. as part of his cushy retirement deal.) In 2000, NBC’s then–vice president of diversity, Paula Madison, was put on the spot at a national convention of gay and lesbian journalists, after a Wall Street Journal editor announced his parent company, Dow Jones & Co., would start providing benefits. Attention turned to Madison, who said domestic-partner benefits at NBC had been “on the table and off the table” in negotiations and that she was planning on meeting with Welch. “I don’t know what the end result will be, but I’m pretty persistent,” she said to a standing ovation. Seems Welch was more persistent.

There are two big changes that make NBC employees hopeful the day of benefits is soon to come. G.E.’s current CEO, Jeffrey Immelt, said in an electronic town-hall meeting for employees in March that it wasn’t a matter of if but when the company will add them. In fact, some new G.E. employees already have the company covering their partners. In April 2002, G.E. bought the number-two Spanish-language broadcast network, Telemundo, from Sony and, instead of canceling benefits for Telemundo employees, agreed to pay for the coverage for 18 months. The same thing happened when G.E. bought out its partners in the cable network Bravo last year. Gay NBC optimists say this is a sign that things could change as soon as October, when G.E. holds its open-enrollment period for health benefits. Boschert isn’t holding her breath. “They’ve been saying that for 12 years now,” she noted.

Either way, there is still the overwhelming irony that the network that was brave enough to put Will & Grace on its prime-time schedule wouldn’t offer Will benefits if he were a regular old employee at the network’s Burbank offices. It’s a safe bet, however, that NBC’s gay employees will probably get benefits long before the network allows Will to have a boyfriend in prime time.

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