The departing NBC Universal CEO made the media rounds on Friday, not long after announcing his exit from the company. It’s no surprise that Zucker is out; his departure in advance of NBC U’s merger with Comcast was widely assumed.
But Zucker, who said he plans to stick around until NBC U’s merger with Comcast is finalized, managed to get out in front of the news, announcing his exit just a day after he finalized his exit package with current NBC U owner General Electric.
Zucker remains a polarizing figure in Hollywood, yet doesn’t cop to why he rubbed so many in the industry the wrong way. Variety briefly spoke to him this afternoon; here’s an edited transcript of that chat.
VARIETY: Talk us through the events that led to your announcement this morning.
ZUCKER: I knew from the day (the NBC/Comcast deal) was announced that this would be a possibility. 99 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. I always knew that. And 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.
So when I sat down with Steve Burke two weeks ago today and he told me that they wanted to move on with me at close, that was not a surprise to me. And I was very much there in my mind too. I knew this was going to be a different company from the one which I’ve had the fortune to lead and work for over the last 25 years, and that’s just a fact.
I didn’t want to be a guest in my own house. When we had that conversation it was an easy and cordial conversation. That was two weeks ago today, so at the beginning of last week I started to talk with GE about my departure and the terms of my departure. We talked about that for a little over a week and finalized it yesterday. As you both know, once you have a deal like that there are no secrets in this world, so let’s just be honest here. I owe it to my leadership team, I owe it to the 15,000 employees who work here. There’s nothing to be ashamed about here.
VARIETY: Was the goal to get in front of this, as opposed to let Comcast announce it or let it leak out?
ZUCKER: Once I had my deal done yesterday, in a Twitter/blogosphere world, once a deal like that is done, there’s no secrets. You can’t pretend. As soon as I knew, I wanted to be upfront with everyone over what was going on. There was no reason to delay.
I’m going to be here for at least another three months, if not four or five. There’s still a long time to go here, but I’d rather be upfront about it. I looked at wat happened at Newsweek recently, where the editor announced prior to the sale going through to Harman that he would step down when the sale went through, and I thought, being above board about it, being upfront, I admired what he did. I thought a lot about it.
VARIETY: A few months ago you were still pretty adamant that you were sticking around. In hindsight, was that simply something you had to say at the time?
ZUCKER: I’m an employee, I’m under contract, I was following Comcast’s lead as well. They were saying the same thing.
I do think this was an incredibly important year for the company, not just as we continue to navigate the transition to Comcast, but if you think about everything that was on our plate, from the Olympics to the launch of Harry Potter (the ride) to the launch of “Despicable Me” to trying to get NBC Entertainment going again… I wanted to be strong for the company, and it turned out to be a very good year.
As I look back, one of the things I’m going to be proudest of is how terrific a shape this company is in. I feel really good about the company I’m going to hand off.
VARIETY: This company that you’re leaving has changed dramatically over the last ten years. Talk about what led to the NBC that exists today.
ZUCKER: I actually feel a little bit better about the broadcast business today as opposed to two years ago in large part because of the fact there’s now retransmission fees. The economic situation still isn’t perfect, there are still some issues, but it is better.
Even in just the last five six years have really transformed this company. What I’m incredibly proud of is over those last five years we’ve taken the assets that Bob Wright really put together, and turned them into an incredible suite of assets.
At its heart now is a cable network company that almost is without peer in media, and I’m incredibly proud of that. We transformed the company into a real cable powerhouse, we moved internationally, we’ve moved heavy into digital, and so I look at those things and think those are among the things you think about when you talk about the evolution of this company.
VARIETY: Your legacy, however, will be judged by the NBC Entertainment piece. Jeff Gaspin has said in recent months that you pulled back too much on the investment there. What are your regrets?
ZUCKER: 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, and I don’t think anybody could. 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.
I don’t think I got the leadership right there until recently, I don’t think I allocated the proper amount of resources there until recently. Obviously I wish we could go back and do somethings differently there. But if you look at it from a strictly bottom line standpoint, I feel good about our position.
VARIETY: Elaborate on what you would have done differently.
ZUCKER: I feel really good about most of the decisions we’ve made in the company, we got most of it right. 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. But we clearly have done that. I think some of the seeds of a turnaround have been planted. We have miles and miles to go before we sleep at NBC Entertainment, but there’s evidence that we’re having a pretty good week, and the feeling coming out of NBC Los Angeles is much better than it had been.
VARIETY: It’s no secret that you’re a punching bag for Hollywood. In hindsight can you pinpoint some of the things you did that rubbed Hollywood the wrong way?
ZUCKER: I don’t take anything personally. The fact is I’ve been incredibly fortunate, I’ve had a great run. There’s always going to be critics, but I think when you take a step back and you look at this in the aggregate, I feel very comfortable about where I am. I understand the world we live in and I’m not bothered by it.
VARIETY: What’s next for you?
ZUCKER: I’ll still be here for the next three to four months. I haven’t thought about that. I’ve been here for 25 years in an incredible time. I’ve never given a thought to anything other than NBC or NBC Universal. I’ll clearly take a little time, although I’m sure after a few weeks my family will want to throw me out of the house. I have a tremendous number of varied interests, you know I’m interested in sports, I’m interested in production and perhaps getting back into production, I’m interested in politics, I’m interested in business. I have a lot of interests and I’ll figure it out over time.
VARIETY: We’re already hearing of a possibility of an entrepreneurial play, perhaps in the news business.
ZUCKER: Anything you’re hearing is not coming from here. I think we’d chalk that up to 100% speculation. I have given it no thought.
VARIETY: And what will the Comcast acquisition mean to NBC?
ZUCKER: I think Comcast will be a great steward to the company. They’ll bring great focus to the company, they’ll bring additional resources to the company and they’ll bring great passion to the company. At the same time they’re inheriting a company that’s in great shape. Great resources, great focus, great love and I think NBC U is really well positioned for the next few years.