NBC’s Zucker gains from Lack’s exit

Jan 13, 2003  •  Post A Comment

NBC President Andy Lack’s decision to become chief executive officer of Sony’s troubled music division on Friday immediately paid off with additional responsibilities for NBC Entertainment President-and network president-in-waiting-Jeff Zucker.
Telemundo now will report to Mr. Zucker, who recently assumed oversight of newly acquired Bravo in addition to his entertainment duties.
All other division chiefs-including NBC News President Neal Shapiro-will report to NBC Chairman Bob Wright, as they had before his elevation to the new position of NBC chairman and CEO at the time Mr. Lack was named president and chief operating officer in 2001. Only NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol has continued to report directly to Mr. Wright.
In a memo to NBC staffers Friday, Mr. Wright said, “With Andy’s departure, we have an opportunity to re-evaluate our organization in order to maximize our strengths as we move forward. As an initial step, effective immediately, Telemundo President Jim McNamara will now report to Jeff Zucker, who in turn will report directly to me.”
He added, “Jeff is a great partner for Jim, given his experience in news and entertainment programming and his fluency in Spanish. As we do not anticipate filling Andy’s position, the remainder of Andy’s direct reports will report to me while we continue to evaluate our operational needs.”
Even though Mr. Zucker’s news background raises the question in some quarters of why he is not assuming oversight of NBC News, insiders say that was not an option at this stage. For one thing, they say, Mr. Zucker’s plate is more than full and Mr. Shapiro has worked closely day to day in recent months with Mr. Wright.
However, any further expansion in responsibilities for Mr. Zucker-the golden boy who rose from executive producer of “Today” to entertainment chief in 2001 and who is widely regarded as Mr. Wright’s eventual successor-also is complicated by a couple of factors.
Mr. Zucker has not yet identified a candidate to succeed him as the network’s top entertainment executive when he does move up and leaves Los Angeles to move back to New York, where his family still has its primary residence.
And there is the fact that, despite NBC’s prime-time success, the network still is regarded in Hollywood as having “issues” with its evening programming lineup. Mr. Zucker recently locked up “Friends” for a 10th season that had not seemed in the cards, thus buying NBC time to develop another “Friends”- or “Frasier”-size break-out comedy. NBC also still lags in the race for reality hits.
Mr. Lack, 55, became president of NBC News in April 1993 and was named president and CEO of NBC in June 2000. Before joining NBC, he was a producer at CBS News.
At NBC on Friday, he was immediately nicknamed “A.Lo” when news broke that despite his lack of music industry background, he would succeed music industry veteran Tommy Mottola, whom Sony had abruptly cut loose the previous day.
Telemundo became Mr. Lack’s dominant assignment after his got frozen out by Mr. Wright, who usurped many of his duties and with whom he has had a contentious relationship for some time.
During his tenure as NBC News president, Mr. Lack created MSNBC as a way of growing the NBC News brand on cable-and as a way of amortizing NBC News expenses. In many quarters, Mr. Lack was regarded as the “last protector” of MSNBC President Erik Sorenson, who has been unable to turn around the also-ran cable news network despite nearly five years of nonstop makeovers. So speculation immediately started about whether Mr. Sorenson’s string had run out.
However, Mr. Lack was widely understood to have been behind many of the changes, of course, and had found it hard to extract himself from the mix, even after direct oversight of the cable channel had been passed to Mr. Shapiro.
People familiar with the thinking inside the company expect MSNBC to become more NBC News-ified and say new thought will be given to what the identity of MSNBC should be before any changes in management are considered.
Despite the recent sense that NBC was content to wait for Mr. Lack, who had his admirers as well as detractors from the bottom of NBC to the top of GE, to chart a path outside the network, NBC seemed unprepared Friday to articulate its response to Mr. Lack’s departure.
Parent company GE was the first to release a statement, saying, “Andy has made a tremendous contribution to the success of NBC. While we regret losing his talents, we congratulate him and know that he will make a real impact at Sony.”
NBC later released a similar comment attributed to Mr. Wright: “Andy has made significant contributions to NBC’s success over the last decade, particularly in leading our news organization to a pre-eminent industry position. He is a talented leader, and I’m sure he will do well in his new role and we wish him great success.”