NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker, the entertainment world’s ultimate politician, wants to be a politician. Not now, mind you, but sometime after he steps down from his perch atop the Peacock network, which he currently has no intention of doing. Based on cable giant Comcast’s executive maneuvers in preparation for its takeover of NBCU, however, Zucker might find himself available for the campaign trail in time for the 2012 election cycle.
Last week, the NBCU leader set off another round of the favorite game of the entertainment chattering classes—“When will Zucker be fired”—when he confirmed to The Washington Post that he will consider running for office in the future. That statement piggybacked previous Zucker comments on Joe Scarborough’s radio show in February about the benefits of having business leaders in government.
The two biggest hurdles executives entering politics face is being viewed as either a carpetbagger or egomaniac.
“I’ve been around enough campaigns to see the similarity,” Zucker told The New York Times Magazine back in 2001. “In this job, you are beholden to your constituencies. I’ve never said this before, but I would like to run for office. Being a senator would interest me. But would I do it from New York or Florida, where I’m from? New York is impossible, and Florida has changed so much from when I was a kid, I’d have to figure that out, but politics—running for office—has always intrigued me.”
Back then, a shining star climbing the ranks of NBC after serving as Katie Couric’s morning wunderkind, Zucker’s comments were little more than ideal rumination. Now, however, with his past glow faded by any number of missteps ranging from an inability to regain primetime glory to the late-night fiasco involving Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, media observers are suggesting that his office ambitions lay the groundwork for an elegant and plausible departure from NBCU after the Comcast deal closes. (In December, Comcast inked a $37 billion deal with General Electric to form a joint venture to run NBCU.)
Though Zucker last year signed a new contract that keeps him at the helm of NBCU through 2013, sources say his new deal is meaningless, little more than a way to both ensure consistency while Comcast awaits regulatory approval and secure a nice payout for Zucker if he’s ultimately asked to step down. (Zucker could make upwards of $20 million in total compensation this year alone, according to public documents.)
Ironically, Zucker may be more suited to politics than entertainment. While his creative acumen is suspect, there’s no denying that he can manage a budget better than many of his media peers, at one point delivering seven straight quarters of earnings growth at NBCU before the recession hit in late 2008. He has the Machiavellian instincts needed to succeed in office, the gut to make tough decisions and the thick skin necessary to handle the criticism, as evidenced by the Leno-O’Brien debacle.
And besides experience with government agencies and cut-throat NBC politics, Zucker can also be a polarizing figure (Sarah Palin, anyone?) with a compelling personal story (he’s beaten colon cancer twice). Zucker has two other things that could aid a run for office—name recognition and rich friends to raise money from.
One question: what party would he run from? As opposed to, say, former News Corp. COO Peter Chernin, who has given generously to the Democrats, or Chernin’s famously right-wing ex-boss, Rupert Murdoch, Zucker is a registered independent who has never donated to a particular political candidate—records show that in the five years he’s only made two $5,000 donations to GE’s political action committee.
“As an independent who has never taken sides on political issues in any meaningful public way, he’s certainly in a position to capitalize on the public’s growing disgust with politics as usual,” says Davidson Goldin, formerly the editorial director at Zucker’s MSNBC and an adviser to Harold Ford during the time he considered running for Senate. “That said, it’s a longer road than people often realize from the boardroom to elected office. The campaign trail requires a sustained and determined commitment of not just money, but also time.”
A second question: Where would he run from? The New York resident grew up just south of Miami, in Homestead, Florida.
Jeff Garcia, a Democratic political media consultant, argues for the latter.
According to Garcia, whose firm is currently advising on more than a half dozen campaigns in the state, the two biggest hurdles executives entering politics face is being viewed as either a carpetbagger or egomaniac.
“They have to step back and realize they are getting involved in something they know nothing about,” Garcia says. “They can’t just airlift themselves into a place and run, that’s been done millions of times before with little success. They need to develop a political gameplan just like they would a business plan.”
Garcia cites the tact taken by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush as a model for Zucker to follow. After losing his first run for Governor, Bush essentially went right back on the campaign trail, spending copious amounts of time traveling around the state, setting up a charter school for inner city youths, and getting as involved as possible in Florida’s political machinations. The strategy paid off—Bush won the next election for governor.
Garcia said he would advise Zucker, should he ever decide to actually run for office, to find a policy issue to build a political resume around—renewable energy would be a good one, for instance, given GE’s commitment to going green, which resulted in NBCU incorporating environmental issues into its programming.
From there Zucker could start a foundation at a university, put out white papers, and travel around the state giving speeches to various city chambers of commerce on the issue. All this should be done a year or two before running, that way, when it comes time to campaign, Zucker would already have met with state leaders and developed a reputation independent of his entertainment industry background.
That would be good thing. It would hard to imagine the campaign bumper sticker: “Zucker: He’ll do for America what he did for NBC prime time.”
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, Black Men, and Media Magazine, and he’s appeared on CNBC, Bloomberg, BBC Radio, and Reuters TV.