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NBC Universal to Name Jeff Zucker Chief Executive

CNBC.com
Monday, 5 Feb 2007 | 5:33 PM ET

Entertainment giant NBC Universal, a unit of General Electric, is expected to name Jeff Zucker to the chief executive post this week in an effort to help it better compete in the digital age.

Zucker, a fast-rising NBC television executive who made his mark as the youngest producer as the executive producer of NBC’s “Today” show, will succeed Bob Wright, who has headed the network for 21 years. Zucker, 41, is currently CEO of NBC Universal Television Group and reports to Wright, who built the TV network into a vast entertainment empire during his tenure.

The announcement may come as soon as Tuesday, reports CNBC’s Jane Wells. CNBC is a unit of GE's NBC Universal.

The transition comes as NBC Universal angles itself to compete against online forces such as Google, YouTube and MySpace.

Wright, 63, had planned to stay on as CEO at least until the end of the year. But General Electric Chairman Jeffrey Immelt decided that Zucker was ready for the job and insisted the change come immediately, according to the Los Angeles Times, which first reported the story on Sunday, citing four people at the company.

Cultural Shift Seen

The transition could signal a cultural shift at NBC Universal. The casual, creative Zucker is seen as a contrast to the more cerebral and buttoned-down Wright. He has been Wright's second in command since December 2005 and has long been considered the favorite to succeed his boss.

The Harvard graduate joined the network in 1986 as a sports researcher for its Olympics coverage. Zucker moved to "Today" in 1989, and three years later, at 26, became the show's youngest executive producer. He is credited with building the show into the company’s most profitable program.

In 2000, Zucker took over NBC's prime-time entertainment division. He kept profits up by extending "Friends" for two additional seasons and by embracing reality shows like "The Apprentice" and "Fear Factor."

“What Jeff Zucker is probably most famous for, and how he kind of kept the network going, were (with)…edgy reality shows like “Fear Factor” that pushed the limits of good taste but made a ton of money for NBC,” said Alex Ben Block, a senior Hollywood columnist at HollywoodToday.net, told CNBC.

Zucker's ascent up the ranks of NBC Universal slowed when, as head of the company's West Coast operations in 2004, he failed to find hits to replace "Friends" and "Frasier."

New Popular Shows

But by last fall, the network's roster of popular shows began to bulk up again, with "Sunday Night Football," "Heroes" and "The Office."

Wright became chairman and chief executive officer of NBC Universal in May 2004, in conjunction with the combining of NBC and Vivendi Universal Entertainment. He joined NBC as president and CEO in 1986 and is credited with transforming the company into a media powerhouse.

He ushered in the era of “Must-See TV” string of programming--from “The Cosby Show” to “Seinfeld”--when NBC came to dominate primetime television. He also moved aggressively into cable, beginning with the creation of CNBC and moving into Spanish language television.

“You have to give Bob Wright a lot of credit over the last two decades for taking what was a standalone network, and a good one, and turning it into a major media conglomerate,” Block told CNBC.

Besides its headquarters in New York, NBC Universal has West Coast operations that include Universal Studios, KNBC Channel 4, two Spanish-language television stations, and TV and film production facilities in Universal City and Burbank.

Wright will stay on as chairman of NBC Universal during the transition. NBC Universal was not immediately available for comment.

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