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NBCU’s Zucker: In An On-Demand World, Content Matters More Than Schedules

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CNBC (NYSE: GE) talker Jim Cramer grilled his out-going boss Jeff Zucker during a quick back-and-forth about his high points and low points, his job prospects and where the TV business is headed as the merger of Comcast (NSDQ: CMCSA) and NBC Universal awaits regulatory approval. But it was during the audience Q&A at the Paley Center’s International Council conference that Buzzmachine’s Jeff Jarvis focused on one of the larger questions about brands and networks.

Jarvis’ question alluded to former Disney (NYSE: DIS) chief Michael Eisner going into the online video programming business with Vuguru, and Howard Stern going from terrestrial radio to satellite. He asked Zucker, who is the CEO of NBCU until the Comcast merger’s approved, “Will we start to see the disintegration of TV with programmers going straight to the web?”

Zucker said yes, but that the timing was unclear. “Michael Eisner would probably appreciate being put in the same group as Howard Stern,” Zucker said. “In all of this, though, you know what matters more than anything? Brand. NBC Nightly News, The Today Show, those are brands and they resonate with viewers. For everybody with a Flip Cam and thinks they’re a journalist, it all comes down to whether they have credibility — that’s what makes them recognized as a journalist.” In other words, as a brand who can prove you uphold certain standards of quality, you acquire recognition, and in turn, that allows you to credibly call yourself a journalist.

Cramer then asked about the economics of digital and what that means for a huge media company like NBCU. Did Zucker leave money on the table in pursuing digital pennies?

Zucker, who first started using the “digital pennies” phrase, reminded Cramer that NBCU is now up to “digital dimes” these days. “You can’t bury your head in the sand in the advance from tech. You have to try different things, because technology is not going to go away. But are we making enough money from digital? No. But we have to keep trying and we’re making progress.”

Early on in the Q&A, Cramer said that if it weren’t for the broadcast side’s performance, Zucker’s record as CEO would have been spotless. Cable has been a shining light, but with all the talk of “cord-cutting,” does that mean the cable business is in danger of becoming the newspaper business — that is, having its business model upended by online?

“No, we’re not the newspaper business,” Zucker said, noting that cord-cutting is a potential threat down the road. Later on he talked about how the on-demand world would affect the formation of a network schedule. “Broadcast networks will have schedules for next few years, but in an on-demand world, content matters more than schedules,” he said.

Zucker didn’t address what he would do next. Cramer noted that he started out on the journalism side in the past and Zucker also has expressed an interest in politics. “But that doesn’t mean I want to be a journalist or that I’m running for office,” he said.

Cramer led off asking about the hold up of the Comcast merger. “It should be done by the end of the year, but this is Washington, and you never know what could happen,” Zucker said. “So it is possible that it could stretch into next year.” One of the big issues that regulators are looking at is the impact that the combination would have on the business conditions surrounding online video streaming.

Lastly, an audience member asked Zucker about the meretricious quality of a world where celebrities like Kim Kardashian has thousands of Twitter followers. To his credit, Zucker did not claim that he always hue to the highest standards of propriety for the things NBCU ran on TV. “Hey, we did put Fear Factor on the air,” he said.

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