Notable wins, big failures in outgoing NBC U CEO's legacy
What’s in store for Jeff Zucker 2.0?
The outgoing NBC Universal CEO’s future is likely to be complicated by the legacy he leaves at the company he grew up in.
In media and showbiz circles, Zucker has been a uniquely polarizing figure during his decade as a senior manager at the Peacock. His brash pronouncements frequently raised the blood pressure of his exec peers, and his blunt disdain for Hollywood’s traditions made him the creative community’s favorite punching bag since Harry Cohn.
“He’s a snake-oil salesman,” quipped one industry exec. “That ‘can-do’ attitude is a certain mark of leadership, but take a long view of the things he said and did in the moment, and they would prove to be bad moves.”
There is no denying that Zucker notched notable successes during his nearly 25 years at NBC. The wunderkind news producer revived the fortunes of “Today” and turned it into a profit powerhouse.
As an exec, Zucker pushed NBC deeper in the lucrative cable business, spread NBC U’s wings internationally with new channels and aggressive program exports, and he took the big swing that established Hulu as an Internet vid player. He also showed great personal fortitude in fighting off two bouts with cancer while barely missing a beat of work.
But Zucker’s failures in recent years were so spectacular, on the heels of such bravado — think Ben Silverman’s appointment, the attempt to scrap pilot season, “The Jay Leno Show” — that his detractors had more ammunition than they could use.
Zucker even managed to upset Hollywood insiders on Friday, when he told several reporters (including Daily Variety) that the biggest regret “I had was that we didn’t move faster to fix the issues at NBC Entertainment, both from a personnel and resource standpoint.”
The rap on Zucker, of course, is that the exec hobbled NBC’s primetime fortunes by making split-second programming decisions as if he were still in the booth at the “Today” show.
Many of those quick-fix moves may have made sense on paper, or even goosed ratings in the short term, but ultimately did more harm than good. Many were only temporary bandages, such as implementing program “super-sizing,” or pulling off an extra season of “Friends.”
Another Zucker initiative, the complicated five-year plan to hand the “Tonight Show” from Jay Leno to Conan O’Brien, also led to a messy blow-up and the eventual departure of O’Brien from the network.
Other decisions further alienated Hollywood, including the move to dismantle NBC’s once-dominant “Must See-TV” comedy lineup by moving “The Apprentice” there, and stripping “The Jay Leno Show” across 10 p.m., crowding scripted dramas out of the timeslot.
Zucker may have gotten the most grief, however, for his misguided move in 2007 to hire the colorful agent-turned-producer Silverman as the head of NBC’s programming and production unit, elbowing out the well-respected Kevin Reilly (who moved across town to Fox). The exit watch for Silverman began as soon as he started, as it became clear his strengths were not in the exec suite of a GE subsidiary.
“I think Jeff’s biggest problem was that he disassociated himself from Hollywood,” one uberagent said. “If you run several networks, you’re a part of the Hollywood community, whether you live here or not. And Jeff never gave the impression that he loved the product.”
The level of anger toward Zucker reflects the industry’s collective love for TV’s oldest broadcast network, and the one that defined the heights of the biz less than half a generation ago.
When NBC Entertainment failed to pull itself out of its post-“Friends” and “Seinfeld” slump, and yet Zucker kept being promoted — first to head of all TV operations and to CEO in February 2007 — the town was flabbergasted.
Rival execs groused that Zucker hadn’t paid enough dues in the entertainment biz to warrant his overseeing all of NBC U’s programming and production operations, let alone the Universal Pictures film studio.
GE chief exec Jeffrey Immelt, for one, rose to Zucker’s defense as an executive who rose far and fast after joining NBC in 1986 as a researcher for the 1988 Olympic Games.
“Jeff has been a tough-minded, inclusive and innovative leader of NBC Universal,” Immelt said in a statement Friday. “He has always stepped up when the company needed him. He never blinked when it came to tough decisions.”
In an interview with Daily Variety, Zucker acknowledged his regret at the decline of NBC’s programming luster on his watch. But true to his hyper-competitive spirit, Zucker emphasized the long view of his tenure.
“I look back at 24 years here, and I made thousands and thousands of decisions, and I got most of them right. Obviously not all of them,” he said. “I feel great about what we did to supercharge our cable networks and on the NBC Entertainment side I regret we weren’t able to make more progress in the last few years.”
At 45, Zucker is by far the youngest of his media conglom CEO peers, which will probably only add to the pressure he’ll soon face to come up with a big encore after he leaves 30 Rock.
There was immediate speculation Friday that he might be involved in a startup news venture. Zucker would only say that he has “a tremendous number of varied interests,” citing news, sports, production and politics.
“I’ll figure that out in time,” he said.
Zucker’s departure had been widely expected, although the timing of Friday’s news caught the biz by surprise.
Zucker confirmed that he realized the time had come to resign after meeting with Comcast chief operating officer Steve Burke two weeks ago. Burke made it clear that Comcast was looking for a fresh start at the top, and on Sunday Comcast and GE made it official that Burke would succeed Zucker at NBC U. Zucker emphasized that he understood Burke’s rationale and said the meeting was “cordial.”
“Ninety-nine times out of 100, when a company spends millions and millions of dollars on another company, this is what happens. It would have actually been unique in business for this not to happen,” he said. “It became increasingly clear to me in the past few months that this was the direction that Comcast wanted to go in, and I completely understood that. … I didn’t want to be a guest in my own house.”
Last week, he worked out the details of a severance package with NBC U parent General Electric. Once that was finalized Thursday, Zucker decided it was better to control the announcement his way rather than let it leak out.
“In a Twitter and blogosphere world, once a deal like that is done it’s not secret,” he said. “I thought it was better to be upfront with people.”
Despite the turmoil of the past few years, Zucker pointed to NBC’s strong balance sheet as his strongest legacy.
“As I look back, one of the things I’m going to be proudest of is how terrific a shape this company is in,” he said. “I feel really good about the company I’m going to hand off.”
Zucker is sure to exit with plenty of severance to give him time to figure out his next move. According to terms of a three-year contract he signed late last year, Zucker is to believed to be departing with a parachute valued at $15 million-$20 million.