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Was Jeff Zucker Really So Bad For NBC Universal?

Today is Jeff Zucker’s last day as CEO of NBC Universal (NYSE: GE), where he spent nearly a quarter of a century. Not since Gerald Levin destroyed about $200 billion in shareholder value has a more maligned executive emerged from the media world, which is really saying something.

Zucker can’t claim to have generated losses anywhere near as spectacular. In fact, he hands over to Comcast (NSDQ: CMCSA) an NBCU that is in its best shape in years, generating 4Q operating profit parent company GE hasn’t seen out of the company since 2004.

So why is that we get so snippy when it comes to Zippy, to borrow Leslie Moonves’ favorite nom de putdown for Zucker?

Despite the depreciation of NBC, he’s actually worthy of some appreciation.

There’s no disputing Zucker will be remembered best for his failures, particularly the implosion of NBC primetime and its once invincible Thursday night lineup as well as the disastrous transition from Jay Leno to Conan O’Brien in late night.

Zucker has taken the blame for those disasters, but to dwell on them at the expense of all else that occurred in his time atop NBCU is missing the big picture regarding the small screen.

Fixating on missteps at the broadcast levels is pretty picayune when you consider the extraordinary growth NBCU experienced in the cable business, both in terms of financial and cultural impact. Zucker not only presided over that growth, but also guided NBCU’s first steps in new media. And he navigated these turbulent times the way few else in his position did: by taking risks like the company’s stake in Hulu.

And that’s what’s really at the heart of all the hatred directed at Zucker. Hollywood-ites project all their fears and anxieties about the drastic changes reshaping their industry onto someone who showed little hesitation about embracing those changes. There’s such sensitivity out there toward institutions like The Tonight Show because they are becoming anachronisms, and Zucker wasn’t sentimental about them the way most media wonks are.

Granted, Zucker would not have taken the risks that he took were last place in the broadcast race been staring him in the face. But lesser executives would have simply stuck to their knitting when the very fabric of their business was fraying.

It’s hard to watch the deterioration of a public trust like a broadcast network, and Zucker surely bears blame for its decline. But think of the rise of cable both financially and culturally over the past few decades. The merger with Universal brought hugely successful channels USA and Sci Fi (now Syfy) that only got even bigger. The acquisitions of Bravo, Oxygen and Weather Channel were all textbook turnaround stories, as was the maturation of homegrown news channels MSNBC and CNBC.

But what was always more impressive about Zucker was the way he handled the challenge of, as he so famously put it, “trading digital pennies for analog dollars.” He even took on Steve Jobs in 2007, yanking NBC programming off iTunes for some time until he got the deal he wanted. Zucker always seemed ready to figure out the future rather pretend it wasn’t already here.

But whether it was old or new platforms, what made Zucker interesting was how unafraid he was to try doing things differently. Among the more reviled moves Zucker made was the hiring of producer Ben Silverman to steer NBC Entertainment. To the delight of the naysayers, he tanked and departed after a few short years.

But was Zucker wrong to choose Silverman? In any other industry, he would have been praised for thinking outside the box for not picking a leader from the usual Hollywood development. It’s not as if NBC was better served in the wake of Silverman, when Zucker placated the critics by choosing more conservative stewards who failed just as miserably as Silverman did.

Then there’s the cataclysm that came from moving Leno to 10 p.m. On some level, in retrospect, can’t we appreciate someone taking a big swing that attempted to rewrite the rules of primetime rather than making some safe tweak that just ignored the industry’s cost structures?

He made decisions that didn’t cast an eye on preserving the business models that Hollywood held dear, and he alienated many in the process. Had he succeeded more often, he would have been hailed a revolutionary.

There will be those who say it wasn’t so much what he did but how he did it; Zucker could be brash, abrasive, egomaniacal. OK, maybe he was all those things but who at his level isn’t? Media honchos are rarely mild-mannered choir boys.

He made a career of “failing up”–I’m pretty sure I had never heard that phrase until Zucker came along–and we journalists hated him for it, but why? There’s something deeper at play here, and maybe journalists need to look into our own blackened hearts to understand why. When we’re more than a few tax brackets below Zucker and his ilk, it can be especially tough to stomach someone else’s seemingly undeserved success. The working world is often far from pure meritocracy, so it’s doubly galling to a hardworking reporter who has to spill plenty of ink on someone who is a walking reminder of that unfortunate truth.

We probably haven’t seen the last of Zucker. Still a young man in his 40s, no doubt he’ll take some time off and re-emerge somewhere sometime down the line. Looking forward to seeing him try again, and maybe even earning himself some redemption.

11 Responses to “Was Jeff Zucker Really So Bad For NBC Universal?”

  1. Mr. Burke, as replacement for Mr. Zucker, will have to carry on the tradition of abandoning the past if he hopes to make NBCU successful. Network programming is not the future, it’s the past. What will make for a profitable future, in a Hulu/YouTube world, is not clear. Especially if “cable” connections goes the way of land line telephone as WiFi becomes more prominent and cheaper. Managing change will be very critical, and it will be interesting to see if Mr. Burke is more successful than Mr. Zucker. Read how he should address market challenges at

  2. Newzheimer

    Ah, Les Moonves is so busy rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic that is CBS Television that all he can do is throw off what he considers to be witticisms. The sad fact is that broadcast television is in its death spiral.

    Make no mistake about it, I despise Jeff Zucker for what he did to NBC. He took the network from first to fourth and, in the process, singlehandedly wrung billions of dollars of value out of it. He’s a bald-headed troll who deserves most, if not all of the opprobrium directed at him. But he’s still a better broadcast exec than Les is. Even Bob Iger is better than Les. And that’s not saying much.

  3. Captain 88

    A very bizarre defense of a broadcasting failure. To conclude: “Had he succeeded more often, he would have been hailed a revolutionary” is a lot like saying “If water didn’t freeze, your journey on the Titanic would have been pleasant.”

  4. Jim Rob Jones

    For the love of god if I have to hear his stupid quote “trading analog dollars for digital pennies” one more fucking time!!! It was moronic to begin with and proof positive that Zucker was no visionary. He drove NBC into the ground particularly with this idiotic view of the web. A competent CEO would have turned the web into profitable opportunity. But Zippy chose to view it only as another portal to broadcast his poorly chosen shows and make money from ads. Let him retire in his 40s on his undeserved millions. And let’s pray to god someone with vision, a Steve Jobs of broadcasting, takes over for this Harvard educated fool.

  5. Thinkin'

    Jeff Zucker was and is a tremendous corporate animal. And yes, that’s what they teach you at Harvard!

    But GE execs were at least partially to blame for pushing Zucker on departments and divisions and businesses that he was neither prepared nor broad enough to run. He was a really good news program showrunner (the Today show at a very young age), but to suggest that he could step from there to running entertainment and primetime and then to the entire company…preposterous…

    And, for the record, Zucker wasn’t alone in that category; there were others plucked from mid-management jobs at NBC and given broad senior executive roles who failed miserably…with at least one riding the train to GE HQ when disaster became too obvious.

    Zucker-ville may have been an ugly pace, but don’t blame him entirely.

    He is ambitious, hungry and aggressive. You can’t say “shame on him” for saying “yes” when the offers/opportunities came a knockin’

  6. MyOpinion

    Glad to see this communist gone. Jeff Zucker practically destroyed NBC with his radical left wing agenda. Hopefully NBC will return to broadcasting the news instead of making it up.

  7. John Crisp

    Jeff Zucker ran NBC straight into the ground. I can’t imagine that this author is trying to defend his performance. In business, RESULTS are the the bottom line, and Zucker’s “results” at NBC are indisputable.

    The result is that republican-run Comcast has now purchased the company, with this acquisition obviously having a great deal to do with NBC’s now very obvious sharp turn to the right, in everything from Olbermann’s firing to Jay Leno’s noticeably rightward swing in his monologue. (Those left-wing “radicals” had better toe the line from now on at NBC. The “greatest generation” now obviously holds sway.)

    So what had been a great network for brilliant, expansive progressive ideas, historically, now has been reduced to being just another mouthpiece for the right-wing imbeciles of this country who wait fervently for the “rapture.” I now honestly fear for the future of our Nation.