Zucker’s brave news world

But headaches await as he expands his realm

Bob Wright just handed Jeff Zucker a big new job at NBC. He should have included some Tylenol with the promotion.

There’s no doubt the gig is a coup for Zucker. He’s now firmly established himself as the king of small-screen content at the emerging NBC Universal.

Indeed, other than CBS chairman-CEO Leslie Moonves, no other exec has such a broad TV portfolio.

In addition to maintaining oversight of NBC Entertainment, Bravo and Telemundo’s primetime lineup, the former “Today” exec producer now has purview over NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC.

Once the NBC-Universal merger closes next spring, Zucker, 38, will pick up U’s entertainment cable assets (USA Network, Sci Fi and Trio) and the conglom’s TV studio.

Unfortunately for Zucker, his promotion comes at a particularly challenging time for the Peacock.

Sure, NBC remains a dominant first in all dayparts, from the top-rated “Today” in the ayem to Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show.” It blows away its rivals every May when it comes time to collect coin from advertisers.

But beneath the surface, there are a slew of headaches for the net’s new top programming exec.

In primetime, “Friends” and “Frasier” are going away — and Zucker’s three-year run as entertainment chief, despite some true successes, failed to produce a sure-fire replacement for either. In a now-infamously candid moment, Zucker himself even conceded that many of the new fall shows “sucked” across all networks.

Exec is now counting on development prexy Kevin Reilly to find that next big scripted hit. Reilly will take on an even higher profile at NBC next year, when he’s expected to replace Zucker as NBC Entertainment prexy.

On the cable front, Zucker has to figure out how to keep two key execs happy: Bravo/NBC alternative chief Jeff Gaspin and USA topper Doug Herzog. Both men have the skills to run the new conglom’s cable group on a day-to-day basis — but only one can get the job.

Zucker is passing much of Telemundo over to Randy Falco, the newly-upped NBC Television Network group prexy who will have the sort of broad oversight on business matters that Zucker wields over content. But Zucker will still have to fret over the Spanish-lingo net’s perpetually poor primetime perf.

And then there’s NBC News.

The division in which Zucker was raised boasts plenty of No. 1’s: the No. 1 morning show, the No. 1 network evening newscast, and the No. 1 Sunday public affairs skein.

Nevertheless, Zucker faces a slippery road in successfully steering the news departments, particularly on the cable side. Among the headaches:

  • MSNBC continues to be rocked by an identity crisis and plagued by dismal ratings. In November, the newsie averaged 288,000 viewers in primetime, according to Nielsen Media Research. Fox News Channel averaged 1.3 million viewers in primetime during the month of November, while CNN averaged 854,000 viewers.

“Clearly, MSNBC needs a course change. They’ve tried a billion different things,” says one top news exec at the Peacock.

No one, however, expects Zucker to show MSNBC prexy Erik Sorenson the door. (Sorenson will continue to report to NBC News prexy Neal Shapiro, who will report to Zucker.)

With MSNBC in the process of developing a new talk show for 8 p.m. ET, Zucker has the perfect opportunity to flex his muscles and help shape the program.

  • On the network side, there are hints of trouble at Zucker’s alma mater, “Today.”

In recently months, ABC News’ “Good Morning America” has been closing the gap, even though “Today” remains far ahead. CBS News’ revamped “The Early Show” still trails at No. 3, but has been posting double-digit growth across all ratings categories.

Indeed, while both “GMA” and “Early” see growth compared to last year, “Today” has been consistently flat or slightly down.

Still, “Today” exec producer Tom Touchet is sure to hear from Zucker — probably more often than not.

  • CNBC also could use help. Since the economic crash of the late 1990s, the financial news net has lost its footing and a chunk of its viewership. Unlike MSNBC, however, CNBC still makes loads of money, thanks to its affluent audience. The median income of the average CNBC viewer is $1 million.

Zucker’s handprints can already be seen at CNBC. He recently convinced comedian Dennis Miller to host a 9 p.m. talk show which bows in late January. It’s likely he’s also involved in a talkshow being developed for 8 p.m.

(There is widespread speculation that CNBC prexy-CEO Pamela Thomas-Graham is being groomed for a job at NBC. So far, there have been no names mentioned regarding her replacement.)

  • Zucker takes up his new post just as NBC News begins to prepare in earnest for Tom Brokaw’s exit as longtime anchor of “Nightly News.” Brokaw is expected to anchor until the end of 2004, at which time heir-apparent Brian Williams will step in. Under the transition plan, Williams will soon give up his anchor seat at CNBC’s weekday evening newscast and start playing an even more visible role on “Nightly.” Much is at stake for NBC News. Everyone is prepared for ratings to drop when Williams takes over for Brokaw, the first of the three net news anchors to announce his retirement.

Given his penchant for putting a positive spin on most things, it’s not surprising that Zucker publicly expresses few worries about what’s facing him. He also doesn’t think he’s being spread too thin.

“I’m very fortunate because NBC News is in terrific shape and in great hands,” he says. “I am here to help on the overreaching issues. I’m not going to get involved with what is on the news at 7:09 a.m.”

He’s more candid when it comes to the Peacock’s also-ran all-news cabler. “Obviously, we are all aware that there has been a struggle at MSNBC,” Zucker says.

One of the people most impacted by Zucker’s promotion is Shapiro, who now reports to Zucker, rather than to Wright.

Shapiro and Zucker were friendly rivals in the past, when Zucker was at “Today” and Shapiro was exec producing NBC News’ primetime newsmag “Dateline.” But in personality and style, Zucker and Shapiro are markedly different; Zucker is more outspoken, while Shapiro is the silent type.

“Do these two men have dinner every weekend? No, but that doesn’t mean they have problems with each other,” one top NBC News exec said.

And in some ways, having Zucker as a boss could help Shapiro.

“Neal having a seat at the table will only result in more opportunities for the News division, whether it’s promotional or specials. There is bound to be some sort of cross-over between News and the entertainment nets,” one Peacock exec says.

NBC News staffers roundly agree Zucker is the right pick to be put in charge of news, considering his successful stint as exec producer of the “Today” show.

“We never feel betrayed or upset when a person with a news background gets a job like this,” one NBC News exec said. “Jeff knows everybody here, and everybody knows Jeff. Jeff is one of us.”

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