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.