Open Mic

The Case Against—and For—Jeff Zucker

Chuck Ross Posted February 1, 2010 at 1:09 AM

Tags: Comcast, Jeff Zucker, NBC, NBC Universal, NBCU

NBC Universal President and CEO Jeff Zucker was a guest on PBS’ “Charlie Rose” show a few weeks ago (Jan. 18th).

Charlie Rose, who has known Zucker for years and has had him on his show periodically since at least 2001, began the interview with this assessment:

“Here is the storyline. You took over as NBC entertainment head in 2000 after being very successful as the executive producer of ‘NBC News.’ Things have gone downhill for NBC, and it’s now in shambles. What is it you want to say about that experience?”

After protesting that Rose’s assessment was unfair to the employees of NBCU, Zucker confessed, “Having said that, we need to be straight that NBC Entertainment in primetime over the last five years has not done well enough. And we have to do better and we have to find bigger, broader, better shows.”

He added, “I always say that NBC Entertainment is responsible for five percent of our bottom line and 95 percent of our perception. And right now that’s about 105 percent of our perception.”

What is clear is that under the leadership of Zucker and Jeff Gaspin, the cable networks of NBCU—including USA, Syfy, Bravo and CNBC, among others—have been stellar contributors to the company’s bottom line.

Concurrently and conversely, by Zucker’s own admission, NBC Entertainment in primetime has been a laggard.

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Jeff Zucker on "Charlie Rose" on Jan. 18, 2010

Later in the interview Rose said that some people “say the following things—Jeff [Zucker] is a brilliant tactician and not a great strategist. He came to the job without an understanding of Hollywood but [with] an understanding of news and ‘The Today Show.’ And therefore when you look at those mistakes and you look at this [Jay Leno at 10 p.m. and Conan O’Brien taking over the “Tonight Show” at 11:35 p.m.] mistake, accountability and responsibility might have suggested they needed a new man as head of NBC Universal.

Zucker: Well, look, I will tell you that, again, I think some context is important there. I’m very proud of the job that we’ve done at NBC Universal in the three years that I’ve been in the role [of President and CEO of the company].

And if you look at the scope of what we’re talking about here, again, NBC Entertainment is a tiny piece of the overall company. We’ve had great success in most parts of the company. I think we’ve—

Rose: Except network television.

Zucker: Except network entertainment television.

Rose: Right, which has often been the identifying—

Zucker: Agreed. And that’s why—and I understand that. And I understand that’s why there’s so much angst over this, and I get that. And, frankly, we need to do a better job. And I want to do a better job.

Rose: But at some point if you don’t do better then somebody ought to say "Well, I should turn this over to someone else and somebody else ought to have their hand at it."

Zucker: Well, look, that obviously is for others to decide. But I’m very comfortable with the job that my -- that I and my management team have done over the last three years.

Hmmm....In broad strokes, let's look at Zucker’s performance on the TV side of things with a clear head.

That’s not necessarily easy to do. Up to and including New York Times’ columnist Maureen Dowd’s recent attack on Zucker, more than any other top TV executive in recent years, he has been vilified by the nastiest of anonymous quotes from those in Hollywood. Yes, some of the vitriol has been stated by people in Hollywood on-the-record, but very little, with the excuse that the ones delivering the spiteful spittle have been granted anonymity because they all want to work at NBC Universal at some point.

As regular readers of this blog may recall, I’m a big believer in the KISS concept: Keep it simple and stupid, or, more commonly, Keep it simple, stupid. So let’s apply a KISS approach to this Zucker situation and see if we can come up with a simple solution that makes sense.

By Zucker’s own admission NBC primetime has under-performed for the past five years. The latest disappointment—Leno at 10 p.m.—was also a move destined to fail, as I wrote in my last blog entry.

Zucker is not popular in Hollywood. Most of the charges against him, as I noted, may have been made anonymously, and while that isn’t necessarily fair, it doesn’t make those comments any less heartfelt.

The cable networks, which figure mightily in NBCU’s cash flow and profits, have performed very well under Zucker and one of his top lieutenants, Jeff Gaspin.

Clearly, with Comcast’s approval, Zucker’s contract was renewed at the end of last year for another three years. Part of that, I’d imagine, was basically to keep Zucker—who’s been at NBC for 24 years—in place to shepherd through the regulatory process the sale of the company to Comcast. That is expected to take about a year.

What Comcast needs to do once they take control of the company is a management tweak—as opposed to a major reorg.

And what that tweak needs to be is to take one responsibility away from Zucker and Gaspin: their responsibility for NBC Entertainment. In this instance that means only the TV network and its associated properties. All the cable properties would stay under the purview of Zucker and Gaspin.

Next, appoint a president of NBC Entertainment who has great relationships with the Hollywood community. That person would report directly to Comcast’s Steve Burke, who at one time was president of ABC Broadcasting.

Another idea would be for this president of NBC Entertainment to report to Ron Meyer, the well-respected president and chief operating officer of Universal Studios. But that would be dicey, since Meyer reports to Zucker and the idea here is to take Zucker out of the loop with regard to NBC Entertainment.

Would Zucker go for this? Maybe. At one point in his career he was executive producing, simultaneously, the “Today" show and the “Nightly News” with Tom Brokaw. He later said it was foolhardy to have taken on both responsibilities at the same time, and attributed his attempt to do so as a mistake one makes when one is young. As someone who is older and wiser now, he certainly can see how the idea we propose here makes sense. And lord knows, he’d still be in charge of a ton of important properties that are the real financial drivers of NBCU.

Who should be hired as this new president of NBC Entertainment? Why not throw a lot of money at CBS’ Nina Tassler to do the job. It’s probably doubtful that the she’d jump over to NBC, given her strong ties to CBS chief Leslie Moonves, but I’d be surprised if she wouldn’t love the challenge.

Maybe some of you think Angela Bromstad, who’s currently charged with reviving NBC’s primetime, should be given a shot at the position.

What are some of your choices? How about an agent or former agent—yes Ben Silverman didn’t work out for NBC—but what about someone like his former boss, Sam Haskell, who ran William Morris’ TV department for many years?

Perhaps a showrunner. Or a former showrunner. Would any of the Stevens or Stephens fit the bill? Bochco or Cannell? Or perhaps a Howard Gordon or Damon Lindelof or Katie Jacobs. Robert Greenblatt would be a good choice; so would Chris Albrecht.

I can see you’re getting as excited about this idea as I am. It’s a win-win for NBCU and Comcast. They keep Zucker and Gaspin in the company doing what they do best , and bring a fresh face to NBC that Hollywood would welcome, let alone viewers and the media, all of whom will otherwise continue to deride NBC from now until they find some long-lasting hits—which have been hard to come by for the peacock network these last five years.

Is this the best idea since Johnny Carson was chosen to replace Jack Paar, or the worst one since, well, the Leno/Conan debacle?#