NBC chief calls Jon Stewart's actions 'absurd'

NEW YORK — NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker called Jon Stewart’s flaying of CNBC’s Jim Cramer “absurd” during a keynote talk Wednesday at the McGraw-Hill Media Summit.

“We all want to blame someone, you know — that’s human nature,” Zucker said. “CNBC has done a great job. I’m incredibly proud of the job they’ve done, and I think that the criticism of CNBC, and the business media in particular, was completely out of line.”

Later in the day, during a separate session, Viacom chief exec Philippe Dauman naturally stood by his man. He called Stewart “a great person” and said the host’s persona helps explain the resonance of last week’s high-rated “Daily Show” standoff.

“He has a connection with the zeitgeist,” Dauman said. “His common-man sensibility is the reason it got so much attention. He is one of the few people on the air who spoke to what people were really feeling.”

Scope of the summit, being held at the McGraw-Hill Building in Manhattan, is a lot broader than one latenight donnybrook, so the top execs also fielded questions about how their cable, film and online businesses are evolving. The two-day confab usually involves a lot of tech talk and jargon-rich assessment of the ad biz, but in the current economic climate, every media mind is preoccupied with both topics.

“CPMs in the scatter market are strong because there’s a lot of demand for our networks,” Dauman said. In upfront sales for kidvid, often a revealing indicator of how the rest of the upfronts will go, “we’re cutting some very attractive deals,” the topper added.

Cable networks are also crucial for NBC U, accounting for 60% of operating profit. Zucker said things were going well in that arena — USA should be considered a “fifth network,” in his view — but then moderator Ellen Pollock, executive editor of BusinessWeek, turned to still-struggling NBC.

Zucker said the decision to move Jay Leno into primetime was one made from a position of strength and supported by a lot of research.

“This is the third or fourth time in the past 30 years” such a shift has been contemplated,” he said.

Speaking more generally about trying to re-energize a last-place broadcast net, Zucker became philosophical.

“Sometimes you see the world more clearly from flat on your back,” he said. “When we look at broadcasting, we’re looking at the model and saying, ‘You know, it’s been that way for 50 years, but does that mean that today, that’s still the right model?’ Especially in the economic environment we’re in, you have to question everything.”

The inevitable question about GE’s stewardship is timely now given the turning of the tides, with the parent company suffering and NBC U on a fairly consistent growth trajectory.

“There really wasn’t a question as to its place within GE, and then NBC went through some difficult periods, and these questions came up,” Zucker said. “The fact is I think we’ve had two very successful years, and I think some of that has quieted down.”

Dauman has dealt with similar ownership questions given the turbulence surrounding Sumner Redstone, his debt load and the criticism in hindsight about the CBS-Viacom split. And the economic downturn has exacerbated the stress on every media topper.

Dauman acknowledged the difficult climate but said the “orgy of pessimism” on Wall Street wasn’t helping. “It’s never as bad as people think. You have to try to take advantage of the climate to become more efficient. There are opportunities to take advantage of, and you just try to get through it.”

The stock market responded well to news of the government’s plan to buy $1 trillion worth of securities. The Dow rose 90.88 points, or more than 1%, to close at 7486.58, its highest level in more than a month.

GE gained 3% to $10.32 while Viacom rose nearly 5% to $17.98.

Today at the summit, Microsoft chief exec Steve Ballmer will deliver a keynote, while execs from Lifetime, ESPN, Time Warner Cable and Thomas H. Lee Partners weigh in on various panel discussions.

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