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Zucker Announces Departure From NBC

Jeff Zucker, the chief executive of NBC Universal, told the company’s employees in an email Friday morning that he will step down from his position upon the completion of the takeover of NBC by Comcast.

The fate of Mr. Zucker, the longest-serving senior manager at NBC, has been the subject of widespread speculation since Comcast agreed last December to purchase 51 per cent of NBCU from its long-time corporate owner, General Electric . The deal is expected to close at the end of the year, following regulatory approval.

In an interview in NBC’s executive offices, Mr. Zucker, who is 45, said the decision to leave the only employer he has ever worked for — a decision he acknowledged he was not his own choice — became inevitable after a meeting two weeks ago with Steve Burke, Comcast’s chief operating officer.

Jeff Zucker
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Jeff Zucker

“We had both gotten to the same place,” Mr. Zucker said. “He made it clear that they wanted to move on at the close of the deal and I was completely comfortable with that.”

Even as he said he accepted the logic of a new owner seeking to install its own chief executive, Mr. Zucker also described his departure as both “incredibly emotional” and “gut-wrenching in the sense that you have spent your whole life here at NBC.”

In the face of persistent rumors that Comcast would seek to remove Mr. Zucker the first chance it got, Mr. Zucker had said in previous interviews that he had in no way foreclosed the possibility of staying on. GE, which retained 49 per cent of the company, had done its part by locking Mr. Zucker into the position, awarding him a new three-year contract seven months ago that was designed to take him into and past the takeover by Comcast.

“Look, I knew from the day this was announced that this was a possibility,” Mr. Zucker said. “I wasn’t going to shut the door on anything. But in the last nine months it became increasingly clear that they did want to put their own team in place — and I didn’t want to end up being a guest in my own house.”

While he often faced withering criticism in Hollywood circles for his leadership of the entertainment division of the NBC network — in his note to the staff he mentioned the “ups and downs” the company had experienced — Mr. Zucker said he did not detect “any particular reason” beyond the broad desire for new leadership for Comcast’s inclination to make a change.

Jeffrey Immelt, the chairman of G.E., praised Mr. Zucker’s performance at NBCU, saying, “In my opinion he has never gotten as much credit as he has deserved.” He added, “I love Jeff: I’d hire him again.”

As for the change at the top of NBC, Mr. Immelt said that was to be expected. “It’s natural when you have a change like this,” he said.

Mr. Zucker called the media company that he is leaving behind “well positioned,” with most of its assets in strong financial condition. Last year NBCU generated about $2.3 billion in profits, 80 per cent of which resided in the company’s cable division.

NBC’s entertainment cable channels, headed by USA, Bravo, Syfy, and Oxygen, recently posted their most profitable year for a fifth year in a row. Mr. Zucker also said CNBC, the financial business channel, and the all-news cable channel MSNBC, had logged record profits as well.

He also cited strong years from NBC’s theme park division, an improving forecast for Universal Pictures, a comeback in profits for the local television stations owned by NBC and the ratings dominance of every news program on the NBC network. Mr. Zucker noted that NBC had acquired both The Weather Channel and Oxygen on his watch and had worked closely with the Fox network to create the now heavily trafficked video website Hulu.

One of his proudest achievements, he said, was the management team he had put in place in the various cable channels and divisions of NBC. Asked whether that management team would stay in place under Comcast, he said, “I certainly hope so but I don’t know for sure.”

But Mr. Zucker conceded that his legacy at NBC would be colored by what he called “the rap on me,” which has centered on his failure to solve chronic problems in the most high-profile (if not the most high-earning) part of the NBC empire, the prime-time hours on the broadcast network.

“Do I wish we’d had more success at NBC Entertainment in recent years? Yes, of course,” Mr. Zucker said. He acknowledged one recent widely publicized blunder, the effort to shift NBC’s late-night star Jay Leno to prime time. but he said it had been a risk worth taking, one “that simply didn’t work out.”

Asked to identify the biggest mistake of his tenure, Mr. Zucker said, “The thing I regret most is not moving quickly enough” to fix NBC Entertainment. He said he detected some glimmerings of a turnaround in prime time this fall, though “we have a long way to go.”

On the other side of the personal ledger, Mr. Zucker said the highlight of his career remained his days producing the “Today” show, which catapulted to unchallenged leadership and record profits during Mr. Zucker’s two stints as executive producer. He called that “the most fun job I had” and added: “In my heart I am a producer.”

Mr. Zucker assumed the “Today” job for the first time in 1992 at the age of just 26, one of ten positions he held during almost a quarter century at NBC. (Mr. Zucker displayed a framed tower of his old business cards presented to him by one of his staff members. The bottom card listed him as a researcher for NBC’s Olympics; the top one as chief executive.)

“Ronald Reagan was President when I got here,” Mr. Zucker said, adding, “I’m OK with this, but it’s also very emotional and very tough.”

He said, “I’ve spent over half my life at NBC. This is the only place I have ever worked. I’ve been here 24-and-a-half years. I met my wife here. My four kids were born while I was here. I’ve endured colon cancer twice. It’s going to be incredibly strange for me personally” to leave.

As for his future, Mr. Zucker said, “I don’t know. I never really thought about it because for 24-and-a-half years I only thought about this place. I have a lot of interests, producing, politics, sports, business.”

Friends have previously suggested Mr. Zucker might try to enter political life. “Am I interested in politics? Yes,” he said. “Is it something I am going to do right away? No.”

Despite previous speculation that he has long had an exit deal in place, Mr. Zucker said he had only completed the details on his contract settlement Thursday. He did not disclose financial terms of his settlement but said, “Nobody has to worry about me; I’m good.” He will stay on until the deal closes, he said, because Comcast can not exercise management control until it wins regulatory approval.

“Am I disappointed it’s coming to an end?” Mr. Zucker said. “Sure. Am I disappointed with them? No. I understand it. They spent billions of dollars. It’s the way it goes.”

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