influence public policy and to be involved
in an interesting business facing huge
challenges driven by new technology.
Cotton joined NBC as general counsel
in 1989, supervising about three dozen
in-house attorneys. Over the next 11 years,
NBC expanded from a single broadcast
network to include CNBC, MSNBC and 10
additional TV stations.
In 2000, interested in getting back
into news and looking for international
experience, Cotton raised his hand to
become president and managing director
of CNBC Europe. In moving to Europe,
Cotton was exporting a product, CNBC’s
U.S. financial news report, which was
a runaway success in America for its
coverage of real time market trades and
marketing moving news. Before 2000,
CNBC’s success in Europe was not the
same as in America, as its reports focused
on features and profiles rather than the
markets. It was one of many cultural
gaps he encountered. “It opens your
eyes to how U.S.-centric most American
businesses are,” Cotton says of his
experience in Europe. “For me, it was a
During his four years in London, he
expanded CNBC Europe and opened
up new co-ventures for CNBC in Turkey,
Italy and Dubai. He watched from afar
as NBC merged with Vivendi Universal
Entertainment in 2004 to create
NBCUniversal—to become not only a
content company and cable network
company with two TV networks, but
also a movie and theme-park company.
Cotton was asked to return as general
counsel to help manage the integration
of the two companies.
Unlike many corporate lawyers, Cotton
believes strongly in keeping work in-house.
He reorganized his team into specialties,
as the number of lawyers has increased
from the 35 to 40 when he first joined
NBC, to more than 200 today. He oversees
the policy direction of a half-dozen
While creating a new in-house culture,
Cotton faced significant new external legal
challenges. Before 1995, the old NBC had
been a delivery company, distributing
entertainment created by others. The new
NBCUniversal was both content distributor
and creator, producing movies and TV
programs at a time when demand for
content was exploding across the Internet.
On many points, Cotton agrees with the
technology community activists. Yes, there
should be easy access to all published
content. But he wants what he calls “a
few speed bumps” on the superhighway.
For example, he cites “Lazy Sunday,”
the digital short aired on Saturday Night
Live in 2005. Copied without NBC’s
permission onto You Tube, the video was
one of the first to go viral. Millions saw
“Lazy Sunday” on You Tube, but NBC
and its advertisers got no immediate
benefit. In contrast, when You Tube had
stricter technology in place and it was
more difficult for NBC videos to be copied
onto You Tube, Tina Fey’s 2008 SNL
skits about Sarah Palin got even wider
viewership online—and 98 percent of
those online views were on NBC.com or
Hulu.com, which is partly owned by NBC.
The benefit of creating the content stayed
with the creator, instead of being diluted
by You Tube. In response to those who talk
about the “free” and “sharing” spirit of the
Internet, Cotton points out that You Tube
makes money from posting videos it
doesn’t own—a mere year and a half after
“Lazy Sunday” went viral, You Tube was
sold to Google for $1.6 billion.
He says You Tube and other media
companies will continue to develop filtering
systems and put digital “fingerprints” on
original content that make it harder to
upload infringing content onto You Tube.
He believes the public prefers original
content, especially if the quality is better.
He believes, because of the success of the
i Tunes model, most consumers are willing
to pay reasonable fees.
The Internet is young, Cotton notes, and
the world needs to make some decisions:
When is it permissible to use or distribute
work created by someone else? How
should compensation be determined?
What are the penalties for breaking the
rules? “Over time, does anyone have any
doubt that the rule of law will come to the
Internet?” Cotton says. “I don’t.”
SUPER LAW YERS / BUSINESS EDITION 2012