Zucker takes NBC Universal reins

CEO aims to continue primetime turnaround

In his first day on the job, new NBC Universal chief exec Jeff Zucker vowed to continue a turnaround in primetime — and promised to get to know the film biz under the tutelage of U Studios chief Ron Meyer, whom he showered with praise.

“I have not been as intimately involved on the film and theme park side of the business, but I am incredibly fortunate to have Ron Meyer on my side; I feel comfortable and confident that it will not be a difficult process,” Zucker said Tuesday.

GE chairman Jeff Immelt called Zucker’s appointment, which had been rumored for months, “the worst-kept secret in the history of business.” It was the result, he said, of three years of planning, and watching the former “Today” exec contend with some thorny problems — such as the fall of NBC from first to fourth in the ratings.

Immelt indicated that GE had looked at other candidates both inside and outside the company, and former Viacom chief Tom Freston was rumored to have been one of them. But Immelt said he and the board decided late last year that Zucker was the best man for the job.

“I’ve spent my entire career here. Every day of my professional life has been at NBC Universal,” Zucker, 41, told Daily Variety. “I’ve just wanted to do a job and do it as well as I could.”

While Immelt acknowledged the primetime debacle, he didn’t blame Zucker and said he thinks the exec is on the path to a ratings turnaround.

“We had to go through a process in primetime that was many years in the making, a rebuilding,” Immelt said. He called the steep drop two years ago “a tribute to where we were (before).”

Once Immelt and the board reached a decision, they felt there was no reason to wait — despite outgoing CEO Bob Wright’s reluctance to pass the baton.

Wright, 63, will remain as chairman of NBC U until May 1 and as vice chairman of GE and adviser to Immelt until early next year.

Asked what the hardest part of leaving the job was, Wright responded, “Leaving it.”

Zucker’s appointment caps a 20-year run that began as a researcher at NBC Sports.

The promotions came quickly for Zucker, who now oversees a vast empire including the NBC broadcast network, TV stations, cable nets, a film studio, a Spanish-language network and theme parks.

“I have a great team in place in every one of our divisions,” he said. “Where I can be of help and assistance I will be involved, but I will not be as hands-on in the day-to-day running of any one division.”

As for the studio, Meyer, who was also on the conference call, said, “My goal is to make hits, period. Besides that, we are always looking at prices and who we’re paying and how efficiently we are spending our money.”

Zucker said, “I will look forward to working with (Universal Pictures co-chairs) Marc (Shmuger) and David (Linde) to figure out what’s the right model, how to create those hits that Ron talked about.”

Immelt said there are no plans to “scale back” at the studio, either on the film or TV side.

“We are investing more money in our own television studio than we ever have,” he said.

Zucker will not be replaced in his former position as head of all NBC Universal’s TV assets; rather, parts will be farmed out to other execs, who will report to Zucker and see their portfolios expanded.

“As we went though transition, we wanted to test some people, as we did with Jeff,” Immelt said. “Now that we’ve decided on Jeff, that structure that we had in the past doesn’t make sense.”

Zucker acknowledged that a re-organization in NBC’s exec ranks is imminent.

NBC West Coast prexy Marc Graboff will add more responsibilities to his portfolio, with entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly and studio chief Angela Bromstad now reporting directly to him. Reilly is in talks on a new deal to stay at the Peacock (Daily Variety, Feb. 4).

Immelt signaled that Reilly and Bromstad are in good stead within the GE-owned company, singling out NBC’s program execs for praise.

“I like the team we’ve got in California working on this challenge,” he said. “They’re aggressive, they’re bright and they’re taking the right risks.”

Meanwhile, cable and digital guru Jeff Gaspin is also in line for a major promotion in the new Zucker era, likely taking control of cable distribution. USA/SciFi prexy Bonnie Hammer may also get a bump, and Bravo chief Lauren Zalaznick remains an internal star.

Immelt took pains Tuesday to praise Wright, who first took the reins of NBC in 1986. The broadcaster merged with what was then called Vivendi Universal Entertainment in May 2004.

Wright “turned the network into a tremendous global entertainment powerhouse,” Immelt said.

“He did it by seeing around corners and picking up what was next. Financially, GE shareholders have benefited from his stewardship.”

“It has been a great privilege to lead this company,” Wright said in a farewell memo to staff. “I leave NBC U in strong, capable hands.”

(Josef Adalian contributed to this report).

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