In two decades at NBC, Jeff Zucker has risen from researcher at the Seoul Olympics to president and CEO of NBC Universal, a position that will require him to become fluent in the lingo of the worlds of film and theme parks.
It speaks volumes about the rapidity of his ascent that among his direct reports, the number of people who are younger than the 41-year-old executive can be counted on one hand, perhaps even a couple of fingers.
After his appointment last Tuesday he talked with TelevisionWeek National Editor Michele Greppi about how most steps up in his career “just happened,” how he had no designs on the big job until the past year and about the number of issues facing him and NBC Universal.
TelevisionWeek: In our best Chris Matthews voice, we’re saying, “Tell me something I don’t know about the next year.”
Jeff Zucker: I believe the momentum with NBC’s prime-time lineup and with Universal’s film slate will continue to improve.
TVWeek: What will be NBC Universal’s biggest success/improvement story in your first year as all-high mucky-muck?
Mr. Zucker: See answer to Question 1.
TVWeek: What will be NBC Universal’s retransmission strategy moving forward?
Mr. Zucker: I obviously don’t want to talk about this too much publicly, but as you know this company has vast — half of this company’s assets are on the cable side. That’s one of the more under-reported stories about this company, which is that half of this company’s operating profit is derived from those cable entities. That puts us in a slightly different position than others when it comes to retrans. Retrans is a very important part of who we are and who we will be.
TVWeek: Fox News announced last week it will launch its business news channel this year. What will be CNBC’s greatest strength and vulnerability?
Mr. Zucker: I think the fact that we have spent the last two years getting our house in order at CNBC and the fact that CNBC’s performance is demonstrably better than it has been, up more than 150 percent from its low point a few years ago, is the best response to anyone who wants to come into that world.
TVWeek: Any thoughts on the CNBC “money honey” tempest around Maria Bartiromo’s dealings with Citigroup and a former executive?
Mr. Zucker: I would just say I believe Maria has handled herself with incredible class, and has done everything we asked her to do, and has not crossed any lines and remains an incredibly important part not just of the CNBC family but the NBC Universal family as well.
TVWeek: How much improvement can you reasonably expect from the cable entertainment channels, which, as you say, are the driver of the company right now?
Mr. Zucker: We expect to see double-digit growth out of them, but that is a phenomenal performance on top of a phenomenal performance.
TVWeek: How about MSNBC? It’s headed for what’s described as a phenomenally profitable this year now that NBC Universal is the sole owner.
Mr. Zucker: Consolidating our ownership in it last year and then having this growth on top of that has come at a very nice time. It’s really making nice progress.
TVWeek: How much is Keith Olbermann, the MSNBC “Countdown” host who has been negotiating a new contract, worth?
Mr. Zucker: Keith Olbermann is an incredibly important part of MSNBC and I expect he’ll be part of our future for a long time.
TVWeek: That would be the longest he’s ever stayed in one place professionally, wouldn’t it?
Mr. Zucker: Well, look, I think when you’re happy and you’re doing a great job, it makes complete sense to stay where you are.
TVWeek: Would you like to hazard a prediction about how the prime-time race will play out this season?
Mr. Zucker: No. The only thing I would say is that there is no question that four networks in prime time will be incredibly closely-bunched, and my guess is that there’s half a ratings point separating first from fourth. It’s never been that competitive from first to fourth.
TVWeek: Now that you have total control over the universe, what can you promise fans of “Friday Night Lights”?
Mr. Zucker: I would say that this entire company loves “Friday Night Lights” and we’re going to do everything we can to see that that program gets to the playoffs.
TVWeek: And that means …?
Mr. Zucker: We love this show, we believe in this show, there’s no group that wants that show to come back more than this company.
TVWeek: Against the backdrop of the digital emphasis by NBC Universal, can you say what has been learned so far from “iVillage Live,” which is running on the NBC Universal-owned stations.
Mr. Zucker: What it has proven is that there are new economic models that can work in daytime and we’ve got to continue to refine them and hone them and commit to trying new things. So far we are pleased with the initial plays of “iVillage Live.”
TVWeek: At what point did you know you wanted to run the whole shebang?
Mr. Zucker: Wellllllll, I think that’s something that only became clear to me within the last year, that that was a real possibility, and only then did I think that would be something I would want to do.
I’ve never had a career path where I set out or knew what I was going to do next. The next thing just happened, and that was always the case. I just wanted to do the job well that I was in.
Only within the last year, when I was given the responsibility for the entire television group — and that was two-thirds of the company — did I think about ultimately moving into this position.
TVWeek: How will you put your first big stamp on the Zucker era?
Mr. Zucker: I don’t feel any pressure to announce any big initiative. It just doesn’t work like that.
The fact is the key areas I want to focus on are content, making sure that at NBC, especially in prime time, they continue the momentum they have under way, making sure the film studio has the resources they need to have the summer they hope to have. So content will continue to be a major area of focus.
The digital side will be the other main area of focus. We’ve spent a year experimenting. Now we have to focus on the economics.
Obviously, cost will continue to be a key area of focus. I’m not sure that focus ever ends.
TVWeek: Can you give any specifics on where NBCU 2.0 stands?
Mr. Zucker: We’ve made tremendous progress. We are very close to having met all the goals we set when we announced NBCU 2.0 last year. There’s still a little work to be done. We’re very much on target and have identified most of that and feel very positive about that. We’re not going to let up on looking at our cost structure and our cost basis ever. This is an evolution and an ongoing process.
TVWeek: Does it surprise you that some people in the industry still shake their heads and say they don’t get your ascent?
Mr. Zucker: All I ever have been worried about is doing the best I can do, and making sure the people who work for me are supported and motivated, and the people who I work for feel I am getting the job done for them. Beyond that, everything takes care of itself. I don’t have time in my life to worry about the rest.
TVWeek: Analysts frequently diminish NBC Universal’s share of GE’s revenues, saying NBC Universal’s performance and changes do not have much of an effect on the GE stock price and that sort of thing. What do you think when you hear that?
Mr. Zucker: We are proud to be part of the GE family and want to make sure we contribute our fair share. Whatever the percentage ends up being we want to make sure we’re pulling our fair share. GE has been nothing but a fantastic owner of NBCU, and I expect that to be the case for many years to come.
TVWeek: If you still were executive producer of “Today,
” would you have been lobbying for a fourth hour?
Mr. Zucker: Of course I would. Sure. Sure.
TVWeek: And would you be knocking on Kelly Ripa’s door?
Mr. Zucker: (Pause) As you know, I’m a big fan of Kelly and admire her personally and professionally.