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Zucker Tackles the Broadcast Delusion

January 29, 2008 5:30 PM

The conventioneers march into the Mandalay Bay exhibit hall, wide-eyed and excited.

They’re youthful, happy to be here and full of optimism about the future.

The conventioneers are, of course, not attending NATPE.

They’re going to the snow sports convention in the exhibit hall next door to the annual television trade show.

The snow sports event slogan is: “Poker … Strip Clubs … Snowboards … Is This Heaven?”

The NATPE slogan could be: “Media Consolidation … Writers Strike … DVR Penetration … Is This a Tax Writeoff?”

To lead off the proceedings, conference organizers choose NBC Universal President-CEO Jeff Zucker to give the keynote address.

This is sort of like choosing “The God Delusion” author Richard Dawkins to give your loved one’s eulogy. Sure, he might be right about everything … but kind of a downer, no?

“For many years, if there is one thing everyone could count on at an industry meeting like this, it was that if a head of a media company was up here, he or she would talk about how broadcast television has a strong and robust future in spite of all the challenges,” Mr. Zucker said. “It has been a great run. … I can’t come here with the usual cliches about the endurance of broadcasting in the form we have always known. We must acknowledge that a significant part of our industry is under incredible pressure and has to change.”

Here’s what was impressive about Zucker’s speech: By the conclusion of his tough-love rundown of the drastic changes required to overhaul broadcast television, you’re nearly convinced that the fourth-place network is actually ahead of its competitors in terms of bottom-line strategic thinking (which is, naturally, one reason Zucker gave it).

A key question asked of Zucker afterward is whether he would embrace such changes if NBC were not a perennial fourth-place finisher in recent years.

“Whether we’re in first place or fourth place, we have to change,” he said, which isn’t entirely the same as answering "yes."

Yet Zucker’s point is that the marketplace challenges exist regardless of NBC’s ratings. If the media can put aside its obsession with the broadcast network horse race for a second (always difficult for us to do), his call to re-examine the decades-old development and upfront processes is certainly reasonable.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with either process, mind you. They’re just byproducts of a wealthy industry that has long been able to drive the scenic route to its destination—a winding path that the industry finds increasingly cumbersome to take.

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