This is what you call a big news day in TV circles, with Jeff Zucker and Jon Klein respectively exiting their posts at NBC Universal and CNN. For the more detailed reports on that, see here (for Zucker) and here (for Klein).
If only the two had mastered the last few years of their executive tenures as artfully as they did their Friday-morning announcements, a staple of the news business, to blunt a story’s impact over a long weekend. The practice doesn’t work quite as well as it once did in the Internet age — everything is so immediate — but it still ensures those headlines run on Saturday in print, and that business dailies like the trades and Wall Street Journal can’t weigh in (again, in print) until Monday.
Zucker and Klein have a lot in common, at least in terms of the way they handled the jobs. Both could be charming, accessible to reporters and quotable. But at a certain point it was hard to talk their way out of public-relations snafus, from CNN’s handling of bombastic anchor Lou Dobbs to NBC’s punt-it-down-the-road decision to promise Conan O’Brien “The Tonight Show” and then — more out of necessity than design — move Jay Leno into primetime.
Both execs also had a way of seriously irritating competitors with their public pronouncements, which isn’t anything new, necessarily, but seemed exacerbated in these instances. Fox News (especially) and MSNBC (more recently) tended to go apoplectic every time Klein spoke about CNN being the model for hard news, and then deviating from that stated goal in some unfortunate and spectacular way. As for Zucker, he wasn’t wrong about the TV business needing to reinvent itself; the question was — and has always been — whether NBC had the right formula and plan with which to do it or was simply careering from one seat-of-the-pants decision to another. “Talk is cheap,” in other words.
As a consequence, there’s a certain symmetry in seeing the departures of Klein and Zucker announced on the same day. And while much will doubtless be made of the timing — less than a week into the new TV season for Zucker, after the mishandled Larry King baton pass and before the premiere of “Parker-Spitzer” with Klein — that’s more of a sideshow. Both exec shuffles had been anticipated for quite awhile, and in each situation, it’s hard to argue with the notion that the time for a change had come.
Update: Klein was quoted in New York magazine as saying, “People get shot in our business. I got shot.”
If by shot he meant “Pushed out after a series of questionable decisions,” then yes, I completely agree.
Meanwhile, some are noting that Zucker chose the New York Times’ Bill Carter to make public his plans, since Carter has essentially lived on a small cot near the foot of Zucker’s bed off and on throughout the exec’s tenure. Frankly, that sounds mostly like sour grapes, but it is fair to say that the general softness of the Times’ coverage of television is difficult to deny — and bears notice given their tendency to casually say that the trades pitch softballs, as they did in a recent piece on the Hollywood Reporter’s makeover.