Rick Cotton’s No. 1 passion is public policy–with journalism and business tied for second. Lucky for him, the executive vice president and general counsel of NBC Universal has a job that lets him combine all three. He spent most of his undergraduate days working for the Harvard Crimson newspaper. After he graduated in 1965, Cotton went to work as a reporter for Newsweek, deferring law school for one year. While his work at Newsweek was the perfect marriage of these passions, Yale Law–known for its public policy focus–provided Cotton with a way concentrate his energy where he felt it mattered most. “At that point I was very focused on public policy issues,” he explains.
By the early 1970s, Cotton began working in the government sector–serving as law clerk to Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. and deputy executive secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare under Secretary Joseph A. Califano. In the early 1980s, he moved into private practice as a partner at Dewey Ballantine. And by 1989, he had landed at NBC.
“I always had an interest in the media and journalism,” he says. “And this is it.”
After working at NBC for 11 years, Cotton became managing director of London-based CNBC Europe. Four years later, he assumed the role of GC for NBC Universal. And while standing at the helm of the legal department of one of the largest television networks in the nation, he also chairs the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Coalition Against Counterfeiting and Piracy (CACP).
Q: Explain your job as GC of NBC Universal.
A: I would separate it broadly into two categories: supervising the legal organization and government relations. My supervising duties are part administrative and getting involved in the top-of-the-agenda legal issues and cases. I spend a good deal of my time on government policy issues, which are clearly dominated by digital theft and counterfeiting.
Q: Would you tell me about that work?
A: There is no question that our big picture strategic approach to reducing the amount of digital theft is to reduce the easy availability of our copyright material. We also work with the business executives, on whose plates these responsibilities rest, to increase the easy access on a legitimate basis.
Over the past few years, sites such as YouTube have adopted content recognition technology, which blocks copyrighted content from being uploaded. With SNL, for example, we load digital fingerprints immediately, as the show airs. Once those fingerprints are in the database, someone can’t upload that video to a site that uses content recognition technology.
Thanks to this technology, SNL clips can be found easily on Hulu.com and NBC.com, but not so easily on YouTube. When technology makes access to pirated copyrighted content difficult, Internet users will pick up the cues.
Q: What makes your legal department unique?
A: It’s the best in the business. The NBC legal department is organized by specialty area. We have been lucky enough to attract some of the best legal talent in each of the specialty groups. We want to do as much as possible inside, and to do that, we need to have that talent inside. Within that framework, we really emphasize teamwork and advising business executives on how to achieve their goals via a path that minimizes legal risks.
Q: In early December 2009, Comcast announced it was buying control of NBC Universal. What did that mean for you?
A: That was months and months of enormously hard work. Both NBC Universal and legal were deeply involved in working with GE executives and lawyers. We were in a support role, since this was a transaction between GE and Comcast.
The purpose of the transaction was to create a new joint venture. In addition to the NBC assets, it will have the program assets and channel assets of Comcast. Also, the CEO of NBC Universal will become the CEO of the joint venture. We anticipate retaining the existing management team. It will go forward much like it already does. But there will be some obvious changes over the next six to nine months.
Q: Tell me about your position as chair
of the CAPC.
A: The No. 1 priority facing a content company is the corrosive threat of digital theft and counterfeiting. From a public policy point of view, we work to ensure the government officials and public recognize that the very foundation of the advanced economy depends on innovation, creativity and technological invention. Specifically our challenge is to ensure thieves don’t highjack those precious capabilities.
As chairman I really try to expand the sectors that are involved in the coalition on the business side, reaching out to organized labor and working to facilitate and galvanize the coalition.
The key achievement of the coalition was to make clear that fighting digital theft and counterfeiting is a major jobs issue. At a time when the economy is in the ditch, strong government action to prevent counterfeiting from killing jobs is a very high political priority.
Q: How did your role as managing director of CNBC Europe come about?
A: I had been GC at NBC for 10 years. At that time, CNBC Europe was a joint venture with Dow Jones. It became one with NBC, and I came to learn the business through that venture. I had an interest in the business side, so I threw my hat in the ring. I got the job and held that position from 2000 to 2004.
Q: What is the most challenging part of your job?
A: The most challenging part of jobs of leaders in large organizations is to handle meticulously well the vast number of individual items that come across your desk. More importantly, while you are handling those issues, you must organize your time and effort such that you preserve your priorities. It is critical over the course of the year to be clear what your objectives are, what balls you’re moving forward, what is critical for the organization to move forward, and to have the time to move those forward.
Q: What do you like most about the work you do?
A: The variety. I like the media business ranging from journalism through entertainment and extending through enormous new technology challenges. I enjoy the analytic challenges of thinking though legal issues. I enjoy the policy substance and the political side of the government relations. Finally, I enjoy the challenge of working in a big organization.
Q: What advice would you give a young lawyer who would like to someday become GC of a large organization?
A: Develop your legal analytic skills. You need a variety of experience, you need to understand, particularly today, the perspective of the executive, the perspective of government and understand the skills it takes to work well as a team player.
Also, international experience is a hugely important asset in today’s world and will become more important in the years ahead.
Q: What is your favorite NBC show?
A: It’s hard to choose between “30 Rock,” “The Office” and “Law & Order.” I like “Psych” on USA. I have a lot of favorites.