Zucker's past choices offer mixed signals

Is Jeff Zucker the guy to finally engineer a true overhaul of broadcast news — for better or, more likely, worse?

Zucker’s responsibilities as the newly anointed CEO of NBC Universal include movies, which is appropriate, inasmuch as GE’s corporate baton-pass evoked ironic thoughts of two film titles: “Barbarians at the Gate” and “The Over-the-Hill Gang.”

In this new version of “Barbarians,” Zucker has been cast in the role of executioner, having already begun wielding an ax meant to slice $750 million out of NBC’s budget, most coming from its news operations. The twist is that the former wonderboy “Today” producer once resided inside the gate, whose ivied walls have long protected TV news from infidels who would dramatically reshape its fiefdom.

Zucker is hardly the first to cite a need to reconsider TV news. CBS chairman Leslie Moonves, for example, made considerable noise about shaking up the hoary institution known as CBS News, only to be met with fierce resistance from newsies. He settled for placing the Eye net’s news division under CBS Sports prexy Sean McManus and hiring Katie Couric, leading to changes in “The CBS Evening News” that have thus far proved mostly cosmetic.

Zucker, by contrast, approaches the task at hand with the credentials of having worked at NBC News. In that respect, think of him as Nixon in China: Just as it required a hawk to negotiate peace with a communist power, a news veteran should possess greater authority in addressing skittish news personnel as one of their own.

Despite his resume, however, Zucker is a pragmatist, and his penchant for news-lite values and quick fixes — including plans to “super-size” “Today” to four hours — offer little comfort to news purists.

In addition to cost reductions associated with the already-announced “NBC 2.0″ campaign, the network is recycling the slick-but-sleazy sting operation “To Catch a Predator” and other crime-oriented fare on MSNBC. This “crime pays” message has spread throughout news, from NBC’s “Dateline” to ABC’s “20/20″ to CBS’ “48 Hours Mysteries.”

Zucker promised on a conference call that further changes will occur as NBC adapts to meet the digital future. “We’re never going to stop asking if we’re correctly structured and properly set up,” he said.

Yet while the days of sheltering news from bottom-line concerns are long since gone, it doesn’t bode well for broadcast reporting if those divisions must toe the same financial line as other units. Crafting “stories” around bogeymen down the street, after all, is invariably far easier and cheaper than digging truths out of Washington, Europe and the Middle East.

To his credit, Zucker is unabashed in defending the news division’s fluffier and more salacious efforts, which increasingly leave “The NBC Nightly News” as a lonely island of hard news. His customary response, in essence, is “Only dweeby TV critics worry about such things.”

Just because he’s probably right doesn’t make the trend any less disquieting.

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As for questions of age and “The Over-the-Hill Gang,” Wright’s step toward retirement at 63 — with GE chairman Jeffrey Immelt installing a younger replacement in Zucker — felt particularly strange juxtaposed against the Directors Guild of America’s annual awards dinner.

Not only did Martin Scorsese, 64, and Walter Hill, 65, collect top honors at that event for “The Departed” and the AMC longform “Broken Trail,” respectively, but 84-year-old emcee Carl Reiner masterfully continued his tradition as the evening’s host.

Throw in septuagenarian Oscar nominees Peter O’Toole, Alan Arkin, Clint Eastwood and Judi Dench, and the rationale for a corporate mandate of a changing of the guard after 60 has seldom appeared more arbitrary and flawed.

Such policies hardly reflect the media world’s present reality, where Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone remain lions well into winter and Barry Diller just celebrated his 65th birthday. Nor is there much evidence to support the notion that younger execs possess an inherent advantage surfing new-media waves that, frankly, are unpredictable enough to subject anybody to a dousing now and again.

As a mere stripling of 41, Zucker is blessed in that he needn’t worry about being “over the hill” any time soon. If he hopes to emulate Wright’s longevity in a hit-driven business, though, he and his team must banish the specter of another vintage comedy title that for a while could easily have been invoked to describe NBC: “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.”

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