Company Town

The business behind the show

« Previous Post | Company Town Home | Next Post »

Jeff Zucker's rough ride

November 20, 2009 | 10:52 am

It's probably not much fun being Jeff Zucker these days.

Over the last year or so, the NBC Universal President and CEO has faced harsher criticism than usual. A press favorite when he was the wunderkind producer of NBC's "Today," those days are long gone and now he is pretty much a punching bag. Earlier this month, New York magazine called him a "reviled wonder boy" and said the "beleaguered and tattered Peacock Network deserves better." For every story that says Comcast is planning on leaving Zucker in charge if it takes control of NBC Universal, there are snickers from industry insiders and snarky comments on Twitter and blogs elsewhere on the Internet questioning Zucker's management skills.

While much of NBC Universal is doing well -- particularly news and cable -- Zucker is ripped for NBC's prime time woes. There is certainly plenty of material there for his critics. The network has been struggling for several years. Its decision to put Jay Leno on at 10 p.m. was seen as a sign that it is throwing in the towel on making high-quality dramas like "Law & Order" and "ER" that used to be a staple on the network. While NBC insiders swear that the Leno show is doing better financially than what the network was doing with dramas, the ratings are way down and NBC affiliates are hurting big time from the weaker programming.

ZUCKER A look at the numbers under Zucker don't do him any favors. He first took over NBC Entertainment in December 2001 and he rocketed through the executive ranks even though the network's prime-time performance had been lackluster. In Zucker's first year, NBC averaged 13.5 million viewers in prime time; now it averages under 8 million. Among the coveted adults 18-49 category, NBC went from averaging well over 5 million viewers to about three million. While broadcast television in general has faced erosion over that same time period, NBC's declines have been far steeper than its rivals'.

Zucker often likes to note that most of NBC's revenue comes from its cable networks including USA, Bravo, MSNBC and CNBC, among others, and that NBC itself represents a very small part of the company's bottom line. To be sure, Zucker has oversight over cable too, and those networks -- particularly Bravo and USA -- are flourishing. Of course, NBC acquired both of those channels and the executives who run them didn't come up through Zucker's farm system.

But nonetheless, he signs off on the decisions and has made smart moves by bringing in Jeff Gaspin to oversee the cable programming operation, putting new heads in at MSNBC and CNBC and giving the green light on moving Bonnie Hammer from SyFy to USA and handing Bravo to Lauren Zalaznick. Telemundo has also made gains on his watch as well.

NBC News also continues to flourish. "Today" kicks off hundreds of millions in profit and NBC's evening newscast with Brian Williams is holding up much better than its competition against cable news. The decision to bring Jim Bell to take over as executive producer of "Today" has paid off.

NBC brass complains that Zucker doesn't get the proper credit for those achievements. True, but planes landing safely isn't news -- and Zucker did win recognition for his excellent job running the "Today" show.

A Harvard graduate who took over "Today" at the precocious age of 26, he is at times accused of arrogance. Some NBC executives say that his cockiness has been reined in over the last few years as NBC's prime time schedule has struggled.

As of late, Zucker does seem more open to acknowledging the network's prime time troubles. Speaking Thursday at a Paley Center for Media conference (disclaimer: I used to work on these conferences at the Paley when I was director of programming there), Zucker said when it comes to quality programming, "we haven't done a very good job of it in the last four years at NBC."

Zucker started in news and interestingly it is the traits that made him a good news producer that may have hurt him as an entertainment executive. He is the master of the quick fix. Can't program the 8:30 hour? Just extend "Friends" and "Will & Grace" by 10 minutes. Can't program daytime? Add an hour to "Today." You get the idea.

For better or worse, Zucker is most associated with NBC's prime time problems because he came up on the broadcast side and that is where he still spends a lot of time. The media that most writes about television is also particularly obsessed with prime time. The cable networks are strong and he has recognized and promoted good talent there and let them do their jobs. The same can be said for his management of news. But until he figures out how to fix prime time or find the people who can, he's going to continue to have a few bad days. He's a big boy. He'll handle it.

-- Joe Flint

Photo: Jeff Zucker at the World Economic Forum in 2008. Credit: Pierre Verdy/AFP