Jeff Zucker, Comcast, and the Future of NBC
With CEO Jeff Zucker leaving, Peter Lauria says NBC's backbiting days are over, asks who will rise in the new era, and talks to Zucker about his legacy.
Well, there’s always politics. Or Jon Klein’s job at CNN.
NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker announced Friday that he is leaving the only professional home he’s ever known, officially vacating his corner office at the storied 30 Rock—an office he diligently worked his way into over the course of nearly a quarter century—to usher in the Comcast era under Steve Burke.
The only surprising aspect of Zucker’s resignation was the timing. Everyone who pays attention to the media’s corporate machinations knew this was coming; it was always a matter of when. The swiftness with which he was dispatched, several months before the deal’s official closing, is a firm signal to the rest of NBCU that Comcast—or more precisely Burke—is in control now and the old ways of conniving and gossiping and shunning responsibility that had been a hallmark of how things were done in the Peacock Network’s executive suite are no longer acceptable.
In an interview Friday afternoon, Zucker said there was no timing dispute between Comcast and GE, that the decision was made two weeks ago, and that his exit package was only finalized Thursday.
Of his legacy, Zucker said: “Hopefully, people will see it as one of creativity, innovation, a willingness to take risks.”
“I announced it today because we finished yesterday and, as you know, there are no secrets in the media business so why wait for it to get out?” Zucker said.
According to some sources, Comcast and General Electric, the parent company of NBCU and therefore still its rightful owner, had been in a standoff regarding the timing of a reorganization announcement for NBCU. Comcast, these sources say, already has its plan in place and wants to announce it, but GE was arguing to hold off until early November, closer to the deal’s closing. But they say Comcast forced GE to move on Zucker after press leaks created anxiety among the staff about who was going to be in or out in the reorganization.
“Everybody was going crazy,” says one person in frequent contact with NBC and Comcast executives. “Comcast said to GE that everyone is worried that they are lame ducks and you have to let us move before they become paralyzed.”
With Zucker now gone, they say it shouldn’t be long before the rest of NBCU and Comcast executives find out their fate in the reorganization.
A broad outline of what Burke is planning has emerged in recent weeks. According to more than a dozen sources I spoke to recently, Burke will leave Dick Ebersol and Ron Meyer in place as the respective heads of the company’s sports and film operations, and that CNBC will be consolidated under NBC News leader Steve Capus’ umbrella. Fox News’ Charlie Gasparino reported Friday that CNBC boss Mark Hoffman, a Zucker confidant, could be leaving as a result of that move.
Less clear—at least from the outside looking in—is what Burke has in store for the leadership of the broadcast network and cable channels. I reported Monday that Burke is considering two plans, one that brings on board former Showtime president of entertainment Bob Greenblatt to run NBC and splitting the cable channels and digital operations between USA boss Bonnie Hammer and Bravo head Lauren Zalaznick. Alternately, and in lieu of that, another plan under consideration would see Hammer gain control of the broadcast network and Zalaznick ruling the combined company’s cable and digital operations.
• Peter Lauria: Will NBC Lose Its Female Power Duo?People familiar with the planning say that Burke is likely to retain either NBCU’s current television entertainment chairman, Jeff Gaspin, or Burke’s current Comcast lieutenant, Jeff Shell, but not both of them. Though running content assets has long been a goal of Burke’s—his desire is what precipitated Comcast’s ill-fated hostile takeover bid for Disney in 2004—sources agree that he is untested as a creative executive and is likely to leave either Gaspin or Shell in place for a period if for no other reason than to take the fall if something goes massively wrong at the outset.
A representative for Comcast declined to comment beyond a statement on behalf of CEO Brian Roberts that read, in part, “Jeff Zucker has devoted his entire professional life to NBC, and he has led the company with integrity and purpose.”
Comcast’s silence, according to a second source with close ties to the nation’s largest cable operator, is the company’s way of giving Zucker the respect to shape the news of his resignation in his own way.
“They’re always going to be gracious,” says this source of Comcast.
Zucker, the bald, bespectacled, boy CEO—he’s only 45 years old—has been laying the groundwork for his departure since May, when he made comments to The Washington Post and Morning Joe about wanting to run for office after leaving NBCU. I wrote at the time that he was setting the stage for an elegant departure.
Zucker revisited his political ambitions in an interview with The New York Times Friday, and also acknowledged that leaving NBC was an “incredibly emotional,” “gut-wrenching” experience that he knew was a “possibility.”
Despite his sometimes polarizing personality, Zucker had a lot of supporters inside NBCU. One staffer said that news of his leaving had “emotions running high around the building.”
Of his legacy, Zucker said: “Hopefully, people will see it as one of creativity, innovation, a willingness to take risks, a belief in diversity and of creating a culture of cooperation and collaboration that is unique in media.”
Zucker will go down in history as the Icarus of media executives, a bright, shining star who got burned the higher he rose.
To his critics, for example, his brilliance as a 26-year-old morning-news producer at Today is marred by NBC’s deep troubles in prime-time under his watch. His ability to manage a budget—at one point delivering seven straight quarters of earnings growth at NBCU before the recession hit in late 2008—is offset by a streak that, despite Zucker’s protestations to the contrary, fostered insecurity even among those who were supposed to be closest to him. His foresight to see that the broadcast television business model needed to change before many of his media peers contrasts with decisions such as rashly hiring Ben Silverman or booting Jay Leno out of The Tonight Show to make room for Conan O’Brien, only to move Leno back after a few months.
In GE’s statement Friday, CEO Jeffrey Immelt said, “He never blinked when it came to tough decisions.”
“Sure there have been ups and downs in the last quarter century,” is how Zucker phrased some of these setbacks in a goodbye email. “But when I step back and think about all that we’ve been through, I feel nothing but pride and joy.”
In that memo, Zucker, who can be disarmingly charming when he wants to be, also recounted arriving for his first day of work in August 1986 drenched in sweat because of the humidity. And he has been under fire nearly every day since then. But Zucker, perhaps the most often maligned media executive in recent history, has taken the heat largely without complaint for 24 years. Nothing if not a survivor, he has, despite his young age, already beaten cancer twice.
That’s why, though his run at NBC is coming to end, this is unlikely to be Zucker’s epitaph. Sources say he is certain to resurface again in a prominent role, noting that his ambition is too great for him to simply retire despite a reported $30 million pay package that would allow him and his family to rest comfortably for the rest of their lives. Many pointed to the news industry as one possible area where Zucker could emerge, noting the he still wields vast equity in the news community.
“I could see him doing some kind of entrepreneurial play in news with financial backing,” says one source close to Zucker. “That’s a space in need of turnaround where he has a proven track record of success.”
For now, Zucker plans to take some time to collect his thoughts and enjoy laying low before deciding on his next move.
“I’m interested in sports, producing, politics, business, journalism,” Zucker said. “I have a lot of interests. This was a very long first act. I never expected it to last this long, but I’m excited about what could come next.”
I hear there’s plenty of time to put together a campaign for 2012.
Peter Lauria is senior correspondent covering business, media, and entertainment for The Daily Beast. He previously covered music, movies, television, cable, radio, and corporate media as a business reporter for The New York Post. His work has also appeared in Avenue, Blender, and Media Magazine, and he's appeared on CNBC, Bloomberg, BBC Radio, and Reuters TV.