Jeff Zucker At The McGraw-Hill Media Summit: Jon Stewart/CNBC, Jay Leno, Cable Versus Broadcast, And Life Within GE

Posted by: Jon Fine on March 18, 2009

At today’s McGraw-Hill Media Summit, NBC Universal Jeff Zucker talked tough, cracked jokes, and, as executives do in such settings, gave carefully calibrated answers. Taken together, they painted the picture of a media executive currently fighting the fight of his life against a brutal and unyielding ad environment.

(Let’s get the disclosure thing over with right now: McGraw-Hill is the parent company of BusinessWeek, for which I write a media column. NBC Universal is the parent company of CNBC, for which I am an on-air contributor. You may see this as being doubly conflicted. Or you may decide the conflicts cancel each other out. Anyway: onward.)

On the future of NBC Universal within parent company GE: “I hope we’re there for a long time. Nothing lasts forever. I think NBC Universal has benefitted greatly from being part of GE. I hope that continues. I believe it will.”

The way in which Zucker answered the question caused some attendees to scratch their heads. But, more to the point: a sale requires a buyer. The simultaneous decline in debt markets and rival media companies combined with a steep price tag—NBC Universal did $15 billion in revenue and $3 billion in profit in '07, and one banker told me last summer it could fetch a pricetag of $40 billion--will likely keep them in place for at least the foreseeable future, and maybe for much longer than that.

On Jay Leno’s move to 10 PM: “'This is not a ratings play.” Indeed, he couched it in the context of an “attempt to change the model” of broadcast that’s lasted so long, and waved away the notion that NBC even sought the bragging rights of being tops in prime time(!), an arena in which they have been lagging.

“I don’t want to say ‘ratings don’t matter.’ They do. But they are not the only gauge of success.” He’s right, of course, but it’s hard to imagine NBC execs making this point at this spring’s network upfronts, the lavish annual ritual in which a great deal of advertising for the upcoming TV season is sold.

Zucker repeatedly stressed the health of NBC Universal’s cable units—at one point mentioning its USA Network in the context of the big broadcast nets, suggesting that it could stand with the titans of TV--and said that cable’s profits would hold steady in 2009. He pointed out that cable accounts for 60% of NBC Universal’s operating profit and went as far as to say “we are first and foremost a cable company,” implicitly hitching his company to the sector of traditional ad-supported media that’s fared the least-bad in the current environment.

And there were the inevitable questions regarding Jon Stewart, the Comedy Central host who has made great sport of chargrilling CNBC and especially its “Mad Money” host Jim Cramer.

Zucker’s initial response when asked for a reaction to Stewart: “Who?”

But then he declared Stewart’s (highly entertaining) critiques to be “unfair to CNBC and the business media general. Including BusinessWeek.” He added “just because someone who mocks authority says something, does not make it so.”

A highly unscientific dipstick-check into reaction on Facebook and Twitter found sentiment trending overwhelmingly against Zucker, which, given Stewart’s cultural bona fides, likely shouldn’t surprise.

This provides me with the opportunity to address the point brought up by MSNBC's Tucker Carlson in the Daily Beast. Carlson claimed that there is a "virtual ban" on criticizing Stewart in the press.

So, fine, allow me to actually agree with one aspect of Carlson's contention. Here goes: Did you ever see The Daily Show episode in 2004 where Stewart interviewed Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry?

Don’t. It’s awful.

Other accounts of Zucker's interview can be found here, here, herehttp://www.paidcontent.org/entry/419-mcgraw-hill-nbcus-zucker-im-calling-out-jon-stewart-blaming-cnbc-is-abs/#extended and here.

UPDATE 3/24: Full video of Zucker interview is here.

Reader Comments

Karl

March 18, 2009 3:56 PM

Isn't 'Dateline NBC' part of NBC? And doesn't GE own NBC? I wonder WHY 'Dateline NBC' didn't want to do a story back in the summer of 2007 regarding the "COLLAPSE of the U.S. economy", & the collapse of the stock market, after they had an opportunity to do so? 'Google' this- RIP OFF REPORT GM CREDIT CARD SERVICES, and read the '1st Update' to that Ripoff Report that was posted on 9-3-2007. Dateline NBC's address is 30 Rockefeller Plaza, in New York, isn't it? I guess stories about Britney Spears, Nicole Richie, Paris Hilton, & the paparazzi, are more intersting, huh? "Only a PAWN in their GAME!" - Dylan

Paul

March 18, 2009 3:57 PM

Joe, I'm not a Stewart follower, though I do find him entertaining when I have time to catch his show. I enjoy his ability to see through the BS and call-people out on obvious truths. Cramer made some BAD calls. Horribly bad. End of story. Don't defend him. Is it unfair that Stewart singled him out vs. other media outlets who probably gave equally bad investment advice? Maybe. Is it correct? Yes. Stewart's point is CNBC is there to report NEWS, not opinion. An opinion shows like Cramer's should have BIG disclaimers at the start. But for an experienced trader like Cramer to be SOOOOO wrong, is scary.

Scott

March 18, 2009 4:45 PM

Just Youtube Stewart's interview with Cramer from last week. It explains it all. CNBC is not a financial News outlet. At best, CNBC is as much an entertainment channel as Comedy Central, but at least Comedy Central is funny. At worst, CNBC is nothing more than an infomercial for publically traded companies that had it's own part in the economic collapse.

Dar

March 18, 2009 4:56 PM

Cramer DOES have big disclaimers. Not only the official ones, but for years scattered through the show. And nearly everyone was SOOOOO wrong. And yes, it is scary.
I like Stewart. I did not like the Cramer interview.

Zucker leaves Cramer to defend CNBC

March 18, 2009 5:02 PM

Why wouldn't Zucker appear on the Daily Show? Why did he leave Cramer to defend not only Mad Money but CNBC (and cable "programming" in general)? Mad Money wasn't the only cable show hyping the bubble. At least Cramer had the balls to show up (and the humility to admit that he got it wrong). I have WAY more respect for Cramer than Zucker...

Kyle

March 18, 2009 5:06 PM

One issue... not really a good idea to cite Tucker Carlson as a source on Jon Stewart, don't you remember the on-air verbal fight between those two a while back?? I believe it was on CNN's Crossfire. Stewart openly dislikes Carlson and vice versa.

To confirm, Stewart's interview with Kerry was HORRIBLE and WEAK! He asked no pointed or tough questions... if he had questioned Kerry just a little like he did Cramer it would have been great, but he really missed out on that opportunity.

However, Stewart makes it a point to remind all his viewers the he is comedian and that the whole point of his show is to mock ANY 24 hour news program, especially when they are ranting their opinions and skewing facts.

Just my two cents...

Michael E Piston

March 18, 2009 5:06 PM

I have never seen anyone so abjectly unprepared for a hostile interview as Jim Cramer on the Daily Show. What did he think he was there for - to plug his book? He knew it was a confrontation - he had practically asked for one. So he should have come prepared to argue why he wasn't a corporate sell-out. Instead he entered apologizing and left grovelling. It was an embarrassment - not because of anything Stewart said, but because of Cramer's unwillingness or inability to defend himself or his network.

James H.

March 18, 2009 5:13 PM

Hindsight is 20/20...where was Jon Stewart before all of this happened? It's easy to sit back and comment on things that have already happened but he certainly didn't foresee the real issues any better than Jim Cramer, Ben Bernanke, or even the oracle himself-Warren Buffett. Jim Cramer has more knowledge of the market stored in his left nostril than most average investors store in their entire brain. Investing is not for those who lack intestinal fortitude...quit investing if you can't afford to lose it all. Anybody who based their portfolio solely on the words of a TV personality got what they had coming. These people proved that common sense is one of the least common things on the planet. Please do yourself a favor and Google "due diligence" before you buy anymore stock.

Words of Wisdom: "Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful."-Warren Buffett (in layman's terms: buy now at fear driven lows)

HJ

March 18, 2009 5:15 PM

I agree with Zucker, people are so busy slurping Stewart they don't care to see it fairly. Somehow dumb mob logic has decided that Cramer should be blamed for everything. Morons.

Mike

March 18, 2009 5:17 PM

If nothing else, this recession has made it clear that Bloomberg is the only place to get financial information on American TV.

J Ricardo

March 18, 2009 5:35 PM

Stewart didn't single out Cramer - Cramer singled himself out by going on a media offensive the week before getting his comeuppance on the Daily Show. Cramer was as culpable as any of the corporate media stooges cheerleading viewers out of their money, but Stewart made it amply clear that he was only part of a much bigger media malaise.

Russ

March 18, 2009 5:44 PM

Jon Stewart is wrong! CNBC/NBC cannot be blamed for their lack of journalistic fiber. Zucker runs an entertainment establishment, it is no different than ABC owned by Disney, or magazines by Larry Flynt.

Maximus

March 18, 2009 6:19 PM

The IRONY is lost of John Stewart. He has become THE NEWS SOURCE for an entire generation of young adults who OVERWELMINGLY voted for Obama after a PROPAGANDA Blitz this country had never before seen. The Daily show was one of the most biased in the campaign and should look in the mirror if its calling out people for responsible representation in the media. Stewart needs to aknowledge that he is not simply a comedy show - but, a news source for an entire generation - and, accept the responsibility that such a role in a democracy entails. If he is not willing to accept this reality then he is simply the pot calling the kettle black.

Maximus

March 18, 2009 6:19 PM

The IRONY is lost of John Stewart. He has become THE NEWS SOURCE for an entire generation of young adults who OVERWELMINGLY voted for Obama after a PROPAGANDA Blitz this country had never before seen. The Daily show was one of the most biased in the campaign and should look in the mirror if its calling out people for responsible representation in the media. Stewart needs to aknowledge that he is not simply a comedy show - but, a news source for an entire generation - and, accept the responsibility that such a role in a democracy entails. If he is not willing to accept this reality then he is simply the pot calling the kettle black.

John Bark

March 18, 2009 6:41 PM

Jon Stewart stated aloud what most of us who have any intelligence with regards investing, have concluded for some time. CNBC talking heads are a entertainers, and nothing else.

We can only hope that they follow their own advice, and reap what they sow.

Saturday Night Live clearly has a little competition.

Tom Mariner

March 18, 2009 6:45 PM

Mr. Zucker should be applauding Jon Stewart -- they are both in the same business of ratings. It is unfortunate for CNBC that the Daily Show host is a breed of entertainer who gets the highest ratings when he is the most unfair and the most hurtful. If he could find out Mr. Zucker's bedroom or bathroom habits, he would use them as well, particularly if they caused public humiliation.

And yes, it is a shame that so many in our populace have tired of the biased campaign rhetoric packaged as pseudo news on NBC and turned to someone who announces he is distorting facts. It's a good thing that this vicious banter can't influence elections or we would all be in trouble.

Wait a minute!

dw

March 18, 2009 6:52 PM

not sure why its so hard to understand. Stewart's entire point was this. If you are a news organization, and you are suppose to have journalists looking for news (not hand outs from company PR departments). And if you happen to be a business NEWS organization and you happen to miss the biggest news story in what 75 years? and its so big that the entire world is impacted? how do you not consider that a huge problem? and from what was shown, they appeared to be cheerleaders for business, not putting forth news. isn't that the problem we had with government regulators?

CWT

March 18, 2009 6:57 PM

"Zucker’s initial response when asked for a reaction to Stewart: “Who?”"

What a punk. Zucker stood in front of a friendly crowd and ran his mouth. He'd piss himself if he had to answer questions from Stewart for 10 minutes. I myself would like to ask Zucker if he's proud of NBC's news coverage of events leading up to the Iraq war, when their people failed to uncover THAT scam.

Sam

March 18, 2009 7:09 PM

1) I agree that it is sad when people watch the Daily Show for their daily dose of news. It's a comedy program, so it must be treated as one.
2) However, let's be clear that beyond the fact that the show's primary purpose is comedy, the truth is that it mocks reality...so the criticism of CNBC was well deserved.
3) For the record, Stewart attacked the notion of journalism lacking its "investigative" component. He was not attacking Cramer specifically; Cramer decided to respond, and thus he was personalizing the entire criticism. Watching Stewart's interview of Cramer' you'd see how Steward repeatedly reminds Cramer that he is not attacking him-- he is attacking the financial new reporting industry, b/c it was not aggressive enough.

Sam

March 18, 2009 7:09 PM

1) I agree that it is sad when people watch the Daily Show for their daily dose of news. It's a comedy program, so it must be treated as one.
2) However, let's be clear that beyond the fact that the show's primary purpose is comedy, the truth is that it mocks reality...so the criticism of CNBC was well deserved.
3) For the record, Stewart attacked the notion of journalism lacking its "investigative" component. He was not attacking Cramer specifically; Cramer decided to respond, and thus he was personalizing the entire criticism. Watching Stewart's interview of Cramer' you'd see how Steward repeatedly reminds Cramer that he is not attacking him-- he is attacking the financial new reporting industry, b/c it was not aggressive enough.

griller

March 18, 2009 7:55 PM

Did X cause Y?
A) X has nothing to do with Y
B) X contributed to Y a little
C) X contributed to Y a lot
D) X was entirely responsible for Y

Zucker accuses Stewart of accusing his company's irresponsible financial reporting for causing the financial collapse (as in D). In reality, Stewart's accusation is somewhere between B and C. This is a classic "straw man" approach--it's easy to knock down the extreme argument which everyone agrees is "absurd." But if you half-listen to the interview, it's pretty obvious that Stewart is not blaming the collapse on CNBC.

What is truly "absurd" and unfounded is Zucker's claim out of thin air that there is an emerging "backlash" against Stewart. It's funny how those in the media always claim that their reporting is merely holding up a mirror to society, yet it so often reflects back very particular points of view--in this case, merely Zucker's personal opinion.

Rocko

March 18, 2009 8:24 PM

CNBC, Jim Cramer, and all the rest are just flesh traders that sell themselves out to the Wall Street insiders, politicians and CEOs that will come on their shows. It is a self serving circus act, not news, much less reporting. Watch something, anything else.

Maximus Responses

March 18, 2009 8:39 PM

Maximus,
In case you haven't figured it out. The reason Stewart is the new source for an entire generation is because he has one of the only shows that doesn't attempt to bs the viewing audience. If you haven't noticed, the Dan Rathers and Walther Cronkites of the world are gone. There hasn't been any dissenting opinions or hard questions asked since GW took ofice. The reason for John's popularity is because you could watch the show and get a refreshing dose of truthfulness presented in a comedic fashion. The real irony is that you think you get it but you really don't. His show is on the "Comedy" network, not a national news network. His role in this democracy has been pointing out the hypocrisy of having the "Real" news networks present news which his show artfully deconstructs into what is obviously an orchestrated attempt at bull shitting the public. The irony is that you have a problem with John Stewart and apparently not with the head of a national network with pretend business and financial news organizations that only serve to dupe the public. The jokes on you Maximus.

lr

March 18, 2009 8:42 PM

The frustrating thing is - he had some valid points over Cramer...this is frustrating because it gives Stuart some creditability. This guy is a wolf in sheep's clothes - slowly changing public opinion.

I find the kids watching him do not question his opinion and take his word as fact. This is scary because so few people have the tools to understand the issues in a systems perspective. Everyone is voting from emotions which is great if your selling a used car.

Carson Grey

March 18, 2009 8:57 PM

This is not propaganda -

this is John Stewart SHOWING US ALL what many already know:

that the markets are manipulated -
those manipulating them know they are doing it.
those making money off of it know they are doing it.

Thank god someone is exposing this!!
This is right along the same wavelength as the AIG bonuses. The financial titans are doing whatever they want and they're doing it with YOUR money.

Jeff Zucker

March 18, 2009 9:21 PM

Zucker is a schmucker. Why didn't Zucker defend Tucker Carlson back when? And why doesn't he ever know where in the world Matt Lauer is?

Hugh David

March 18, 2009 10:28 PM

Perhaps we all should "Say what you mean and mean what you say". If NOT, we will suffer the consequences.

This article is very poor, perhaps it was a rush job.

Bush 2012

March 19, 2009 11:04 AM

Cramer is a liar and a wimp. Not man enough to make these comments calmly and politely to Stewarts face. Shame. Cramer and Santelli keep protecting the Wall Street fat cats to the tune of trillions of dollars, while complaining about losers who lost their jobs and can't pay their mortgage. Or yell and scream about lazy, overpaid American autoworkers. Yeah, like AIG exec's earned their bonuses. But Santelli won't complain a word about them.

Don

March 19, 2009 4:55 PM

The only defense of CNBC has a whole is that they had to fill 24 hours of business news and as businesses became so corrupt as to take down the whole economy, there were too many Lieutenant Calleys in the ranks of CEOs that they had on camera. Technically having Allen Stanford on TV wasn't a crime and I recognized that when Stewart had him on.

However Jim Cramer's show has never, under any circumstances, been acceptable. One cannot turn the investment of one's life savings into a Morning Zoo tv show and get into heaven. It simply cannot happen. Cramer has been roundly criticized for YEARS about the ways he was hurting Amreican culture and how bad he was at giving investment advice. Please note that Louis Rukeyser's show on CNBC was MUCH MUCH MUCH more sane and safe.

At no point should any thinking person believe that Stewart is criticizing the business media as media and the behavior of the most responsible journalists like Rukeyser, who remained virtually uncriticized (save for the Rukeyser Effect) to his death. To suggest that criticizing Cramer is criticizing the media is akin to Rev. Jeremiah Wright claiming the complaints about him were the complaints about African-American church life as a whole. Ugh.

This is almost no different than when Stewart took on Crossfire. In 10 minutes he had leveled the show so badly that Tucker Carlson's entire career was ruined and the man is a laughingstock in DC today.

Jon Stewart is hardly perfect, but his interviews with Foreign Policy authors are the best in the business and the kind of interviews that Letterman and Leno should have been doing for the last 20 years. Not one single criticism of Stewart expressed above (save for the Kerry interview) holds water.

Santelli, on the other hand, is a 1930s-style paper hanger who I would never stoop so low as to criticize. His scapegoating of the poor has European historical overtones unlike anything I've ever seen, save for newsreels.

Max

March 19, 2009 5:55 PM

A couple of things to think about:
1. Stewart is right in his anger regarding the gross mishandling of public funds by investment banks. Greed is definitely paramount on Wall Street, but it wasn't right to take it out on Cramer. Stewart is a biting and honest comedian so any jibe should've been handled better by Cramer.

2. Even though Cramer's show is on CNBC, and his program called "mad money", anybody who invests solely on the advice of Cramer has more than just money issues. I doubt that Cramer realistically had such a huge effect on what's happened on Wall Street.

3. I do not side with Cramer (since I've watched his show, I cannot recall a time when I was in agreement with his opinions), however, he is JUST a tv show host. After all, do you do everything somebody on television tells you to do?

4. Tucker Carlson is truly a piece of sh$%.

Max

March 19, 2009 5:59 PM

A couple of things to think about:
1. Stewart is right in his anger regarding the gross mishandling of public funds by investment banks. Greed is definitely paramount on Wall Street, but it wasn't right to take it out on Cramer. Stewart is a biting and honest comedian so any jibe should've been handled better by Cramer.

2. Even though Cramer's show is on CNBC, and his program called "mad money", anybody who invests solely on the advice of Cramer has more than just money issues. I doubt that Cramer realistically had such a huge effect on what's happened on Wall Street.

3. I do not side with Cramer (since I've watched his show, I cannot recall a time when I was in agreement with his opinions), however, he is JUST a tv show host. After all, do you do everything somebody on television tells you to do?

4. Tucker Carlson is truly a piece of sh$%.

Sparty

March 20, 2009 9:58 PM

How rich of Tucker to claim there's a virtual ban on criticizing Stewart. Is that the best comeback he has after being called a dick by Stewart on Crossfire - watch that interview on YouTube for a good laugh and another stinging critique of the news media.

Newtownian

March 22, 2009 8:56 AM

Interesting discussions. I agree with Max's point 1. but the rest are problematic. After seeing Cramer's show it is clear he is extremely culpable. The many old snippets and his own testimony make it clear he presented himself as an expert even though he knew (hopefully) it was all bull. Were the things he and others like him said influential rather than merely entertaining. Damn right and that is the central problem. Logic said material wealth during the past 10 years was not being created at 17% - where was this doubling in wealth especially when the US was funding the Iraq war black hole. All I've seen is decomposing aircraft and aging cars. And everyone has seen Wall St the movie (pity Michael Douglas). Yet everyone went along with it or were silent. It was because they had faith in people like Cramer. Why is this the case? Many have grown to trust authority through other examples such as the churches, and the president. So shuld it surprise that Cramer was trusted, a trust which he gloriously berayed. The good thing at the end is at least the world appears to operate rationally even if that destroys delusions. What amazes me is it takes a comedian to say the Emperor doesnt have clothes.

Don

March 24, 2009 12:20 AM

Well we all went along with it and were silent because the stock market was the only retirement plans we had! The companies all disposed of difficult-to-manage pension plans- let alone the business media such as Businessweek harassing GM's stock about pensions and retirement benefits as producing uncompetitive US companies. The demise of the pension plans fed into the deification of the 401k. Now we have NOTHING. There are no pension plans, the 401ks are middling to worthless, sales of primary residences will not pay for that in-home nurse. Those of us in our early 40s will still work how many extra years to make up for this, let alone those in their early 60s.

The crux of this whole issue is that since the dotcom boom I do not believe that investing in a company someone else owns that returns no dividends is a sound investment policy. The only way to take advantage of the stock market is to purchase stock at a discount as an executive.

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