Zucker hits NBC U zenith

Chief exec will replace 21-year vet Wright

NBC Universal’s best-known apprentice has finally heard the news: “You’re hired.”

Jeff Zucker, the former “Today” exec long groomed for the top job at NBC Universal, will be named chief executive of the conglom as early as Tuesday, according to sources close to the situation.

Zucker, 41, will replace Bob Wright, a 21-year veteran of the company who spearheaded the merger between NBC and Universal that created the world’s fifth-largest media company.

Move has been expected for months; the only questions were when the Peacock would hold a news conference to announce the decision and exactly how long Wright would hold on to power. Some had expected the news to be announced immediately after a GE management retreat in Boca Raton, Fla., early last month, but several factors — including Wright’s travel schedule — delayed the news.

For several months now, Zucker has been working closely with GE topper Jeff Immelt, who along with Wright has focused on Zucker as a successor without seriously considering other candidates.

Wright will remain at the company as an adviser to assist with the transition for several months. Timing of the transition was first reported in the Los Angeles Times.

It was unclear Sunday if Zucker will immediately receive both CEO and chairman titles. It’s possible Wright will hold on to his chairman title for several months as part of the transition. Zucker isn’t expected to take Wright’s current title as a GE vice chairman.

The fast-rising Zucker is known as a creative manager of talent and franchises. As head of NBC’s primetime, he helped the net get into the reality game, stocking the schedule with reality shows like “Fear Factor” and “The Apprentice.” He also extended the life of “Friends” by paying huge salaries to the cast.

Zucker has been criticized for not developing a primetime hit during his years in Los Angeles, and — despite postponing judgment day — he couldn’t stop NBC from crashing from first to fourth place in the ratings.

Exec made more than his share of enemies while in Burbank, angering some agents and rivals for his oft-brash style. He never moved to Los Angeles full-time, an indication that Zucker didn’t consider his stint in Hollywood as anything other than on-the-job training in advance of a bigger gig.

Still, Zucker had his share of fans on the West Coast, including unlikely allies such as former ABC chief Lloyd Braun. He also engendered strong loyalty from many of his direct reports.

It’s worth noting Wright had a successful two-decade run as head of NBC without having had any experience developing shows, hits or otherwise.

Zucker’s decision to tap Kevin Reilly as head of entertainment also helped lead to the net’s nascent rebound, which is being built on the strength of critic-friendly fare such as “Heroes” and “The Office.”

If his record heading the entertainment division is mixed, Zucker has excelled at managing NBC U’s news and cable assets. Both MSNBC and CNBC are ascendant after Zucker brought in new leadership and championed marquee talent like Jim Cramer and Keith Olbermann.

An architect of “Today’s” 11-year run at the top, Zucker brought in Meredith Vieira from ABC/Disney when Katie Couric ankled for CBS’ “Evening News.” The ayem show generates more profit for NBC than any other, and the net plans to expand the franchise to a fourth hour in the fall.

Zucker joined NBC as a researcher for the Olympics soon after graduating from Harvard in 1986. He moved to “Today” in 1989 and developed a close working relationship with Couric. At 26, he was named the show’s youngest-ever exec producer.

In 2000, Wright turned heads when he named Zucker, a New York-based news executive, as head of NBC Entertainment in Burbank, just as the “Friends” and “Frasier” franchises were starting to wind down and the network’s dramatic franchises, “ER” and “Law & Order,” were starting to age.

Zucker plugged holes in the schedule with short-term fixes like expanded episodes and “Friends” and “Apprentice” spinoffs while using shows such as “Scrubs” as utility players.

By 2005, NBC’s fall from first to fourth place caused the network to book $900 million less than it had the year before.

Later that year Zucker was promoted to chief exec of the NBC Universal Television Group, which gave him oversight of the NBC network, cable properties such as USA, Bravo and Sci Fi, Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo, NBC Sports, the Olympics and news.

Since then, NBC has been carefully nurturing growing shows that had their genesis in Zucker’s time as entertainment prexy.

His leadership was tested last summer when he spearheaded a cost-cutting initiative dubbed NBC U 2.0, a bid to save $700 million by cutting headcount by 5% across the board.

Those layoffs went smoothly and without damaging any of the net’s market-leading news franchises, increasing Immelt’s confidence that Zucker was ready to take the reins.

Sources familiar with Immelt’s thinking said he has been most swayed by Zucker’s business sense and ability to build financial value for the company.

(Josef Adalian in Hollywood contributed to this report.)

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