Surviving NBC’s Upheaval

Bill Carter|The New York Times

Under Jeff Zucker’s guidance in the last few years, NBC Universal’s USA Network has become a powerhouse on cable, Bravo and Syfy have become branded destinations with their own distinctive programming and MSNBC has emerged as the liberal counterpoint to Fox News.

So why does everybody in television just want to talk about Jay Leno?

Mr. Zucker, who was a lightning rod in the television business long before he became chief executive of NBC Universal in 2007, now finds himself at the center of one of the biggest deals in media — the $30 billion plan to shift control of the company from General Electric to Comcast . His success with the cable channels, which are expected to produce more than $2.3 billion in operating profit in 2009, made the deal attractive to Comcast, which is looking for more control over the content that flows through its pipes.

President and Chief Executive Officer of NBC Universal Jeff Zucker speaks at a press conference.
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And arguably, Mr. Zucker’s struggles at NBC made a deal appealing to G.E., as well. One person close to the negotiations between G.E. and Comcast said NBC was on pace to lose $600 million a year, and several analysts pointed to the network’s poor performance — especially Mr. Zucker’s decision to move Jay Leno to prime time — as one reason G.E. was prepared to sell the company.

Mr. Zucker’s future role with the newly formed entity, with Comcast controlling 51 percent and G.E. 49 percent, will be cemented, an executive involved in the talks said, when it is officially announced, which is expected to be on Thursday. Mr. Zucker will be getting a new long-term contract that will extend his leadership of NBC Universal through the regulatory approval period (expected to take at least a year) and will include language promising that his role as chief executive will continue in the new joint venture. The reporting structure will change to Comcast from G.E., and he will report to Comcast’s chief executive, Steve Burke.

That vote of confidence in Mr. Zucker will surely baffle those in the industry who have been constant critics of his performance.

“It’s almost unfathomable that the day after the approval Comcast won’t make a change and Jeff will be out,” said one longtime senior Hollywood executive with program production and talent-management experience who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity because Mr. Zucker remains in a position to make decisions that affect the executive’s business.

Some criticism comes from within NBC. “Some people have begun to ask what he has really done for the company,” said one executive, who asked not to be identified because internal critics could be risking their jobs.

But David Zaslav, the president of Discovery Communications and former corporate colleague of Mr. Zucker’s at NBC, says he believes that Mr. Zucker will survive longer than his critics think. “I think Jeff wears very well. He has a lot of charisma and a ton of energy. This thing could take a year before it settles. I think he wins them over. Don’t underestimate that guy.”

No one who has been around Mr. Zucker during his career has underestimated him for long. He jumped straight from running The Harvard Crimson to a job as the researcher for NBC Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988, and from there to the “Today” show, where he rose at warp speed.

By 1992, at the age of 26, he was running the show and was installed as the executive producer of the “Nightly News” show the next year. That experiment fizzled but his stewardship over “Today” produced record ratings and profits.

Looking for a next step in 2000 (he had turned down offers to run CBS News and to work for Al Gore), Mr. Zucker moved out of the news business and headed for show business, taking over NBC’s entertainment division.

He helped maintain NBC’s prime-time fortunes for a time but years of weak program development caught up with the network as NBC hits like “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and “ER” ended, replaced by smaller shows like “The Office” and reality fare like “The Biggest Loser” and a few short-lived embarrassments like remakes of “American Gladiators” and “Knight Rider.” And coming out of the news division — an unusual route for an entertainment executive — he struggled to win over the Hollywood establishment.

At a symposium last month at the Paley Center for Media in New York, Mr. Zucker frankly acknowledged NBC’s failures in prime time, saying the network needed to do a better job of “being smarter” in programming.

The critics say that the programming failures were worsened by missteps like the hiring of Ben Silverman as the hoped-for fixer of prime time (he departed in July after just two years), and the decision to move Mr. Leno to 10 p.m.

Justifying the Leno move

“I feel they should take the American flag down in front of the building and just put up a white one because they’ve clearly given up,” said Peter Tolan, the producer of “Rescue Me,” just before the start of the Leno show this summer.

Supporters dismiss such comments as wrong-headed, pointing out that Mr. Zucker also has installed creative executives like Bonnie Hammer at USA, Lauren Zalaznick at Bravo and Steve Capus at NBC News.

“When you talk content, you are basically talking talent,” said Jimmy Lee, vice chairman of JPMorgan Chase, who was involved on the banking side of the Comcast deal. “You’ve got big-time executives who have really deep, extremely valuable skills. They can move from company to company. The Comcast crew realized early on that Jeff is really the glue that keeps them all together.”

Several executives inside and outside the company said Mr. Zucker has had to deal with restrictions — mainly on the financial side — from his G.E. bosses that have never been public, and that many of the slams he has suffered are simply unjustified.

"He’s been at the helm of an extremely profitable company," said Jay Sures, the head of the television department for the United Talent agency and a Hollywood friend of Mr. Zucker. "He built one the most important cable companies in the business. News and sports are strong. The one weak spot has been the entertainment business."

While NBC executives maintain Mr. Zucker’s decision to give “The Tonight Show” to Conan O’Brien and relocate Mr. Leno must be evaluated over a long term, the analysis may get harsher in the short term. Many of NBC’s affiliated stations are taking a ratings beating at 11 p.m. and blame low viewership of the Leno show, which leads into those newscasts.

“The next NBC affiliate meeting is going to look like a North Korean battleground,” the senior Hollywood executive said.

Lloyd Braun, once a rival program chief at ABC, now a supplier of programs to NBC, defended the Leno decision. “The easy decision was to keep Leno in place and not take a risk,” he said. “But Jeff was looking to maintain that franchise for the next 20 years and felt Conan gave him the best show to do that. He was not managing quarter to quarter.”

Now, with the ownership issue unsettled until the deal passes regulatory muster, Mr. Zucker would presumably have to manage quarter to quarter — or maybe minute by minute — and prove again to his new potential bosses how steady his hand is on the company’s wheel.