Falco named prexy of TV group

NBC Universal chairman Bob Wright has elevated Jeff Zucker to CEO of a newly reorganized television group and signaled that his protege would succeed him as chairman when he retires in the next few years.

Zucker was named CEO of an empire that includes the NBC Network, NBC U cable properties such as Bravo and USA Network, Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo, NBC Sports, the Olympics and news, including MSNBC and CNBC.

Along with Zucker’s promotion, Randy Falco was named president and chief operating officer of the Television Group and now reports to Zucker rather than to Wright. In addition to advertising, Falco adds NBC-owned stations, worldwide TV distribution and international channels to his plate.

“What we’ve done is combine all our TV suborganizations into a larger one to get maximum cooperation and effectiveness,” Wright said.

“This united organization allows us to go to market that much quicker and that much smarter and that much better,” Zucker added.

Move continues a rapid upward trajectory for Zucker, who at 26 became the youngest-ever exec producer of “Today” in 1992 and became president of NBC Entertainment in 2000.

Since then, NBC’s once-dominant primetime schedule has fallen to fourth place in the ratings, in part due to the departure of franchise shows like “Friends” and “Frasier” as well as breakthrough hits on other nets like CBS’ “CSI,” Fox’s “American Idol” and ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.”

But instead of identifying new programming franchises, Zucker has been criticized for relying too much on aging shows like “Law & Order” and “ER” and gravitating toward short-term fixes like expanded episodes and unsuccessful “Friends” and “Apprentice” spinoffs while using shows with potential like “Scrubs” as hole-pluggers.

“Recent years have been all about short-term success at the expense of long-term planning,” said Shari Anne Brill, VP and director of programming at Carat Americas.

NBC’s fall from first to fourth in the coveted 18-49 demo will hit the bottom line this year as the Peacock lost about $900 million in upfront advertising sales last spring.

The network has had some success this year with frosh comedy “My Name Is Earl” and is moving the show, along with “The Office,” to create a Thursday night comedy block, where NBC was once so dominant.

” ‘Earl’ and ‘Office’ are two accomplishments, but we have a lot more to do and we know it,” Wright said.

NBC’s primetime perf has led to speculation about the future of entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly, but when asked if he still had confidence in the team in Burbank, Wright responded, “Absolutely.”

The network’s primetime failures contrast sharply with news and latenight programming, where NBC is dominant, as well as the performance of the stations, which lead in many local markets.

Wright cast the reorg as bringing all of NBC U’s resources to bear on a long-awaited primetime turnaround.

“We are struggling to rebuild primetime, and we want to take advantage of every part of our organization to ease that effort and accelerate it,” he said.

Wright all but named Zucker his successor as chairman when he retires from the post in the next few years. “He just needs to survive 2006. And 2007,” Wright quipped.

In addition to new roles for Zucker and Falco, Wright brought back Beth Comstock to NBC Universal from GE, where she served as chief marketing officer. Comstock takes the reins of NBC U Digital Media and Market Development, overseeing all digital distribution and television research.

Like Zucker, Comstock reports to Wright.

Comstock will take on the burgeoning opportunities for digital distribution represented by the recent deal with Apple to distribute shows for the iPod and the video-on-demand deal with DirecTV.

“We have done very well on the digital side, but the offers are coming in, and the requests are coming in, and we really have to keep up with this,” Wright said.

The moves do not affect Universal Studios or the theme parks, which are run by prexy Ron Meyer, who reports to Wright.

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