NBC Universal CEO to leave post

Jeff Zucker got out in front of the changes pending for NBC Universal by announcing his plan to step down as CEO after the merger transaction with Comcast Corp. is complete.

Zucker’s departure had been widely expected, although the timing of Friday’s news caught the biz by surprise.

Zucker confirmed that he realized that 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. Zucker emphasized that he understood Burke’s rationale and that the meeting was “cordial.”

“This is what happens (after mergers). It would’ve been unique in business for this not to happen,” he told Daily Variety. “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 on Thursday, Zucker decided it was better to control the announcement his way rather than let it leak out. CNBC reported the news at about 11:05 a.m. ET, followed shortly by a lengthy interview that posted on the New York Times’ website.

“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.”

In a statement, Comcast chief Brian Roberts praised Zucker, who has been NBC U’s prexy and CEO since February 2007, for having “led the company with integrity and purpose.”

The Philadelphia-based cable giant struck a $30 billion deal with GE General Electric to acquire a 51% majority stake in NBC U, with rights to buy

more of the company over the next seven years. Although the transaction has drawn steady fire from biz opponents and media watchdogs, the deal is expected to be approved by federal regulators, albeit with some conditions attached.

In a memo sent to NBC U staffers Friday, Zucker acknowledged that the announcement of his departure “has not been a simple or easy decision.”

Zucker wrote: “Now, it is clear to me that this is the right decision for me and for the company. Comcast will be a great new steward, just as GE has been, and they deserve the chance to implement their own vision.”

Zucker has spent his entire career at NBC, signing in in 1986 as a researcher for NBC Sports’ coverage of the 1988 Olympic Games. He rose swiftly through the ranks and became the wunderkind exec producer of the lucrative “Today” franchise in 1992. He was tapped to head programming at NBC in early 2001, just as the Peacock was coming off a storied primetime run that the Zucker regime has struggled to match.

Zucker’s status as a Hollywood outsider and his barely hidden disdain for Hollywood’s traditional largess for creative talent made him a polarizing figure in the creative community.

Zucker was particularly criticized by rivals and other industry execs for implementing prime time stunts such as program “super sizing,” which helped goose ratings but only temporarily masked bigger problems. The exec was also known for making bold pronouncements – such as his notion that scripted fare no longer made sense at 8 p.m. – only to backtrack on such notions later on.

The exec was also the architect of a complicated five-year plan to hand the “Tonight Show” from Jay Leno to Conan O’Brien. But when the date came to give the show to O’Brien, Leno – and NBC – had some second thoughts, and concocted a primetime 10 p.m. strip for Leno. When “The Jay Leno Show” bombed last fall, NBC scrambled to move Leno back to 11:35 – causing a commotion that then led to O’Brien’s exit.

Asked to reflect on his tenure, Zucker admitted to some regrets regarding decisions made regarding NBC programming, but he emphasized the long view of his nearly 25 years at the company.

“I look back at 24 years (at NBC), I think I made thousand and thousands of decisions and I think I got most of them right,” Zucker told Daily Variety. “I feel great about what we did to super-charge our cable networks. On NBC Entertainment, I regret we weren’t able to make more progress in the last few years. I don’t think I got the leadership right there until recently. I don’t think I had allocated the proper amount of resources there until recently. Obviously I wish I could go back and do things differently there.”

Zucker was upped to head of NBC U’s TV operations in 2004, and then became the clear CEO heir apparent to Bob Wright, who retired in early 2007.

While the mothership NBC broadcast net has been a trouble spot, Zucker moved the company deeper into the cable TV biz by helping to orchestrate the 2004 acquisition of Universal Studios, which brought USA Network and Syfy into the fold. He also steered the acquisition of Oxygen Media and most recently the Weather Channel. Under Zucker and his top cable lieutenant Jeff Gaspin launched an ambitious plan to dramatically beef up the volume of original programming on NBC U’s cablers, a campaign that has paid off particularly at USA where viewership of the cablers top originals — “Burn Notice,” “Covert Affairs,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” — at times has outstripped NBC.

In his memo to staffers, Zucker emphasized that NBC U overall is in good financial shape which bodes well for the future under Comcast.

“I am proud that they will inherit a company in very good shape, with almost every one of our divisions enjoying their best year ever,” he wrote.

He also stressed that he will remain at the helm until the complex deal is complete, “and that day is months away,” he wrote.

Zucker, who at 45 is by far the youngest of his showbiz CEO peers, offered few hints as to what he plans to do 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 interests,” citing news, sports, production and politics.

“I’ll figure that out in time,” he said.

Click here to read the memo from Jeff Zucker to NBC U employees

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