In a move that caught most TV insiders by surprise, “Today” exec producer Jeff Zucker has been named president of NBC Entertainment — ending Garth Ancier’s 18-month run as the Peacock’s top programmer.
While Ancier had been rumored to be on the way out for months, Zucker’s name had not shown up on Hollywood’s radar.
Ancier said he believes NBC brass simply decided he wasn’t a good fit for the network. “Their feeling was, it wasn’t a good match,” Ancier said. “I’m sorry because I enjoyed my time at the network.”
Zucker’s expected to begin his new position at the start of the year. NBC West Coast prexy Scott Sassa said he didn’t think the choice was “unconventional” despite Zucker’s limited experience with entertainment programming.
“Jeff brings a fresh perspective,” Sassa said. “He has been around NBC, he’s been at the upfront presentations, he’s been involved in scheduling decisions. He’s been around the business.”
Zucker admitted that he had a steep learning curve ahead of him and planned to rely on execs including NBC Studios prexy Ted Harbert, NBC Entertainment exec VP of comedy Karey Burke and promo chiefs John Miller and Vince Manze for guidance.
“I come as an outsider from the inside,” Zucker said. “I know what’s important to the success of a primetime schedule. … What I’ve been doing at the ‘Today’ show is making selections on stories and events. I really see it as a similar thing.”
Sassa only approached Zucker about taking the job within the past two weeks; the deal was finalized Wednesday night.
Zucker’s ascension is not a complete surprise. During his previous contract negotiations with NBC, word had leaked out that the one-time wunderkind news exec was interested in moving west and taking on a job in showbiz. He’s also a fave of NBC topper Bob Wright.
Although Zucker had admitted to entertainment prexy aspirations in the past, he said he hadn’t recently been contemplating a career change.
“It was obviously something in the back of my brain that I would be interested in,” Zucker said. “It was a tough decision for me. I had what I thought was the greatest job in TV. I may never have another job as great as that one (at “Today”).”
Despite his rep for being smart, politically savvy and ultracompetitive, Zucker will have to overcome the fact that most of Hollywood has no idea who he is — and that he doesn’t know most of them.
“It could be Doug Herzog-land all over again,” said one industry insider, referring to the former Fox Entertainment topper who was a Hollywood neophyte when he joined the web from Gotham-based Comedy Central. Many believe that Herzog’s lack of West Coast connections helped make his tenure rockier; the same may be true for Zucker, particularly if he goes into his new job with the same level of chutzpah he’s displayed at “Today.”
“You don’t talk to writers or other creative people the same way you talk to people who are producing segments for the Friday concert series,” one veteran studio exec said.
His one shot at a primetime series, the Tom Brokaw-Katie Couric hosted “Now,” failed to find an aud in 1993, like most pre-“Dateline” Peacock newsmag efforts.
Those who know Zucker well doubt he’ll come into the gig like a bull in a china shop. Indeed, if there’s one thing Zucker’s known for, it’s his incredible skill negotiating the notoriously rocky landscape of egos and paranoia that is a network news division.
On the creative side, some people think Zucker’s experience on “Today” makes him a great choice to head up NBC Entertainment. The hybrid nature of his current job, they say, will help him in his new gig.
“A lot of people can do news. A lot can do entertainment. Very few people can do both, and that’s what these shows are,” said Steve Friedman, executive producer of CBS News’ “The Early Show.”
And while Hollywood might not know Zucker, they’ll give him a chance to prove himself, insiders said.
“The town will respond to him. They have to — he has the job,” one longtime agent said.
As for Ancier, the exec was just one-and-a-half years into a four-year deal at network — worth an estimated $2.5 million a year. He’s now expected to settle out with a sizable sum; he also still maintains a 2% stake in the WB .
Ancier doesn’t rule out taking another network honcho job one day, but said it was too early to ponder his next move just yet.
Rumors of Ancier’s departure had been swirling for months and heated up again a few weeks ago when Sassa refused to offer a public show of support for his beleaguered lieutenant. Buzz about an Ancier replacement had centered around NBC Studios chief Ted Harbert, even though Harbert had always publicly denied any interest in the gig, telling colleagues he’s not interested in returning to a job he’s already done.
Ancier appeared to have been granted a stay of execution after NBC delivered a sweeps win in November among adults 18-49. But in the end Sassa said the job “was not a right fit for Garth.”
Sassa said the decision to remove Ancier was not fueled by programming or development decisions but had more to do with the administrative aspects of the job.
“I’m not comfortable giving a report card of Garth’s, but there were aspects of the job that we mutually agreed were hard for him,” Sassa said. “This is a fast moving train — we have to deal with latenight, daytime and syndicated shows. There’s a lot of work and volume.”
Other sources, however, were quick to point out that Ancier was not leaving of his own accord. “This was not his decision,” one person close to Ancier said.
NBC insiders said Sassa simply didn’t think Ancier had the necessary leadership skills for the job.
Ancier “had never managed this many people before,” one insider said. “It doesn’t make him wrong or bad, but there’s a certain level of competitiveness, a sort of will to win you need to have. You’ve got to build a sense of confidence among your staff.”
Added one industry insider: “Garth never fit in with the culture over there.”
It didn’t help that Ancier had a habit of being remarkably blunt and honest with producers, agents and, perhaps most problematically, the press. Peacock insiders cited numerous instances in which Ancier made comments that led to the printing of negative stories about the network.
“You start to build up the (wrong) image, one story at a time,” one insider said.
One exec who has worked closely with him said NBC brass failed to create an environment where Ancier could shine.
“Difficult situations are not where Garth does his best work,” the insider said. “He does his best work when he’s comfortable and protected.”
While many of his former Frog peers had warned Ancier about going to a Big Three net, the exec said he simply was compelled to take the chance.
“Emotionally, I had to do this,” he said. NBC is “where I started. When you start at a company and have a mentor like Brandon (Tartikoff), and you’re offered his job and the chance to lead the company again, it has too much of a sentimental lure.”
Ancier said he leaves NBC pleased with what he’s been able to accomplish.
“When the network is No. 1 in homes, viewers and demos, I can’t feel that terrible with what I leave behind as a legacy,” he said. “I feel like I left the company in better shape than I found it in. … It’s been challenging, though. No question.”
At the same time, Ancier admitted to getting “teary eyed” at looking around his office, which was once inhabited by his mentor, the late NBC topper Brandon Tartikoff.
“I’m having a bit of an Al Gore moment,” he said.
Ancier rejoined the Peacock in May 1999. The exec came to the net from the WB, where he had served as entertainment president since the Frog’s 1994 launch.
Ancier also served as Fox’s first entertainment chief at that network’s launch; his lengthy TV experience also includes stints as president of production for network television at Disney and as an independent producer ( “The Ricki Lake Show”).
(Paula Bernstein in New York contributed to this report.)