Did Comcast Boot the Best Guy To Run Its Cable Networks?

Jeff Zucker announced that he will be stepping down from his role as chief executive of NBC Universal (s GE) upon the completion of Comcast’s (s CMCSA) takeover of the company, according to the NY Times. The news was widely expected, due in part to the first-to-worst performance of NBC’s broadcast network during Zucker’s watch. But in dismissing Zucker, Comcast may actually be booting the best guy to run its cable networks.

Comcast’s deal to combine its cable networks with the assets of NBCU and take a majority stake in the joint venture is still pending regulatory approval, but could close by the end of this year. Once done, the new venture will be run by Comcast COO Steve Burke, who, according to the Times’ interview with Zucker, gave him his walking papers a few weeks ago.

Zucker’s tenure has primarily been colored by the performance of NBC, especially in primetime. The network had gone from the number one performer at the start of his reign down to last place in the ratings, and the broadcast division struggled with profitability. And the biggest blunder of his tenure played out in the public eye earlier this year with the dismissal of Conan O’Brien and the move to bring Jay Leno back to The Tonight Show after a failed effort in primetime.

But let’s not overlook the obvious: While Comcast hopes that the NBC network will be a winner, the deal with GE to grab control of NBC Universal is all about its cable networks. And no one has managed the cable business better than Jeff Zucker. According to the New York Times, NBC Universal’s cable business logged its most profitable year for the fifth year in a row, led by success at cable networks like USA, Bravo, Syfy and Oxygen. NBC also acquired Oxygen and the Weather Channel under Zucker’s watch and integrated them into the fold.

Comcast’s cable properties — including E! and the Style Network — are doing well also, but they are dwarfed by NBC Universal’s overall cable network success. And by bringing the two groups together, Comcast envisions being able to grow its share of cable programming at networks that it currently owns, in part by riding on the coattails of what Jeff Zucker helped build at NBCU. While Zucker might not have been the best guy to run the broadcast network, if Comcast’s plan is to build a cable programming powerhouse, he could have been a valuable asset to the new joint venture.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Robert Scoble.

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