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.