NBC mantra: Don’t muck with Zuck

New Yorker's fast moves impress Burbank lifers

HOLLYWOOD — In his first two months since taking over as president of NBC Entertainment, Jeff Zucker has battled “Survivor,” helped nail down a new three-year deal for “Frasier” and dined with just about every major agent, producer and studio head in town.

Little things like buying a home — so his family can follow him here from New York — will just have to wait.

“I had signed a contract on a house (in Benedict Canyon), but that fell through this morning,” Zucker says, clearly disappointed.

His wife Caryn and two young children are staying put in Gotham until he finds a permanent residence; for now, the Zuckers alternate weekends on each coast, while he holes up at the Four Seasons.

“I’m ready to move,” he sighs.

While Zucker’s physical relocation hasn’t gone as smoothly as he’d have liked, the former “Today” exec producer’s transition from New York newsie to Big Time Hollywood Player has been much more impressive.

To be sure, Zucker, 35, has plenty of tests ahead. He hasn’t yet put a series on the air that bears his stamp, thus shieding him from any real chance to fail. NBC also desperately needs to find its next generation of comedy hits; the ultimate verdict on Zucker may well rest on his ability to do that.

Nonetheless, Zucker has attacked his new job with the same sort of competitive energy he demonstrated in the ayem arena, moving from one mini-crisis to the next with a zest some industry observers say hasn’t been seen at NBC since Don Ohlmeyer was running the net’s West Coast operations.

More important, Zucker’s status as a showbiz outsider doesn’t appear to be hurting him. If anything, it’s proven to be a plus.

He brings a fresh perspective to the job — a valuable skill at a time when NBC needs to think outside the box in order to break out of its current comedy rut.

But Zucker also boasts years of experience in TV and particularly at NBC, allowing him so far to avoid any major rookie stumbles. In news conferences and one-on-one interviews, he rarely, if ever, falls back on the “gimme-a-break-I-just-got-here” excuse to deflect a tough question.

What’s more, Zucker’s rep as a news production wunderkind has given him an aura among Hollywood types that more than masks his inexperience at reading scripts or critiquing dailies.

The exec’s first big test came almost immediately after arriving in Burbank, when CBS announced plans to challenge NBC’s longtime Thursday dominance by skedding “Survivor” on taht night. Zucker rejected the idea, floated by some of his staff, to replace 8:30 p.m. weak link “The Weber Show” with repeats of “Frasier” or “Will & Grace.”

Instead, he convinced the producers of “Friends” to add 10 minutes to February sweeps episodes, creating “supersize” editions. He then asked Gotham pal Lorne Michaels to whip up a couple of live editions of “Saturday Night Live” to program against the closing minutes of “Survivor.”

“We couldn’t just sit there,” Zucker says, and simply airing “Friends” reruns “would have been the easy way out. And I hate taking the easy way out.”

Zucker’s moves weren’t revolutionary, but they were smart. In addition to keeping NBC competitive on Thursday at 8 p.m. during a key ratings period, the stunting demonstrated that Zucker had two skills essential for someone in his job: a sense of showmanship and an almost bloodthirsty passion to be No. 1.

“Remember, he’s not coming from Mars,” says CBS Television prexy-CEO Leslie Moonves. “He’s been producing a show that’s been unbelievably successful for a number of years. He’s a good people guy and a very smart strategist.”

Rick Rosen, a founding partner at Endeavor, says he’s also been impressed so far.

“He’s been a very quick study,” he says. “He has a lot of smarts, a lot of confidence and a lot of aggressiveness. Those are three prerequisites for being successful in his job.”

Though he arrived midway through the development process, Zucker is still trying to have an impact on NBC’s fall 2001 pilots.

His most notable contribution to date on that front has been striking an unconventional deal with former “Seinfeld” thesp Julia Louis-Dreyfus and her producer husband Brad Hall. Zucker made a pilot commitment to the comedy project, but if the pilot goes to series, Louis-Dreyfus will make no more than 15 episodes per season (as opposed to the usual 24).

Zucker thinks it’s worth a shot to try the limited-run approach, or other new ways of programming a network.

“I do think some things need to change, like economic models and the way we get programs on the air,” he says. “It precludes good projects from getting done sometimes. We need to think about that.”

Zucker is also working hard to get NBC into the nonscripted series game. While rivals have been luring auds with the likes of “Survivor” and “Temptation Island,” the Peacock has been largely MIA with series in the genre.

So Zucker has lured away VH1 exec Jeff Gaspin, the man behind “Behind the Music.” A former NBC News colleague of Zucker’s, Gaspin will be in charge of developing alternatives to sitcoms and dramas.

“I’ve known (Gaspin) for about 10 years,” Zucker says. “The things he’s done a terrific job in are the things NBC has had a tough time with. We’ve been so off the mark with reality and specials, it’s been a problem for us. We want to be a serious player in this world.”

Once he gets through development hell, Zucker will likely next turn his attention to sorting out the structure of his exec team. It’s unclear what this means for a few longtime Peacock players; some insiders are already predicting a summer housecleaning.

Another potential headache is the possibility of WGA and SAG strikes, which would disrupt Zucker’s first full season at bat.

It’s a daunting job, even for a man used to producing a daily, live, two-hour show.

“A lot of things are thrown at us every day,” he says. “I’m not sure I was expecting the daily fires. But there’s a different phone call with a different problem from a different show every day.”

Besides the learning curve, Zucker admits that it’s been a challenge to get things done when you’re dealing with a variety of individual players with distinct interests.

“If you wanted to do something at ‘Today,’ you just did it,” Zucker says. “You could have it on the air tomorrow. Here, like the Thursday strategy, you can’t just order it on.”

For example, the exec is struck with how difficult it is to make a deal in this town.

“You want to move forward with something or see a good idea, but it’s complicated to work through layers of managers and agents,” he says.

NBC prexy-CEO Bob Wright knows he’s given Zucker a tough gig.

The job “has gotten harder,” he says. “You have more direct competitors, both cable and broadcast competitors that didn’t exist then. More agents, more managers, more writers, more actors.”

Nonetheless, Zucker says he’s “been having fun, learning on the job. I was aware of how the whole system worked. Now I’m in the middle of the craziness. And it’s as insane as it looks from the outside.”

So far, he’s also felt strong support — and no interference — from his bosses, including NBC West Coast topper Scott Sassa.

“Working with Scott has been really easy, so for me there’s been no issue regarding making decisions,” he says. “He’s been very supportive and incredibly helpful when I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Wright, a longtime Zucker booster, says he’s confident his new entertainment prexy will find his way in Hollywood.

“It’s early, it’s a very difficult job, but he’s the real deal,” Wright says. “It’s hard to find people like Jeff. The Thursday night moves he made are indicative of his competitiveness.”

Despite his strong start, Zucker has plenty to prove — and plenty of potential stumbling blocks.

For one thing, Zucker hasn’t had the chance to show whether he has any skill at picking hit shows or new talent.

“We haven’t seen his development yet. I don’t know what his casting instincts are,” one leading industry power broker says. “He’s a little rough around the edges sometimes.”

Also, Zucker’s legendary self-confidence has in the past come off as arrogance. In the morning-show wars, he often wasn’t satisfied with winning; he wanted to make the other guys bleed. Should next season not go as well as Zucker hopes, his critics may try to deflate his bubble.

As for his self-confidence, Zucker says his well-publicized battle with colon cancer has given him inner strength — as well as perspective on what’s really important.

“I sat in a recovery room twice in my life in tremendous pain. No matter how bad ‘Survivor’ wins the 8 p.m. hour, it doesn’t really matter if you’ve got your health.

“That doesn’t mean I don’t want to kick ‘Survivor’s’ butt,” he says. “I want to win this as badly as anyone. But there were many days I didn’t even think I would be here.

“At end of the day, it’s an important business, but it’s also only television.”

Whatever the egos and eccentricities of Hollywood, Zucker says he can only approach his job for what it is: a job.

“I try to do what’s right and I try to be straight,” he says. “I hope that works out for NBC, and for me. If it doesn’t, I have my health and a great family.”

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