Posted by: Ron Grover on January 12, 2010
The rub on Jeff Zucker, who heads NBC, has always been that no one could ever figure out what he did to get to the top. The 44-year old was a creature of General Electric. He rose from nowhere, starting as a researcher for the 1988 Olympics, and then as Katie Couric’s producer at The Today Show.
Using a combination of moxie and managing upward he jumped to run The Today Show, then sit atop NBC’s entertainment operations, and finally to run the entire NBC operation when Bob Wright retired in early 2007.
Well, Jeff, it looks like your luck has run out. The Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien mess will be your undoing, if not within the next few months then when Comcast takes over controlling interest in NBC Universal in the next year or so.
Your aim might have been laudable – to fix the wobbly network TV business model by cutting programming costs — but by putting Leno in the 10 pm prime time slot you’ve accelerated all of the business’ ailments. Menacing cable channels have picked off Leno defectors, NBC’s TV affiliates are steaming mad, and now NBC is at the mercy of just about every agent in Hollywood. If NBC wants a hot new David Kelly show (as it recently said it does) the network is going to pay through the nose for it.
The irony is that Zucker rose to the top at NBC on the basis of a prime time schedule that frankly stunk. The numbers of new shows that were created while he headed the prime time unit is few – in fact, I can think of just one, The Office, and that one was a British import.
Somehow Zucker never got tarred with the failure. Instead, he got the top job, and got out while the getting was good. (Of course, he did hire Ben Silverman before moving upstairs, and Silverman never really found his way to a hit, either).
The General Electric folks loved Zucker, it seemed, because he gets the credit for pushing NBC into the brave new world of cable channels. And under him NBC enjoyed steep ratings growth at its Bravo, USA and SyFy (formerly the Sci-Fi) Channel.
But nothing rivets the viewers’ attention like the happenings at a major network. You can bet that, as the Leno and Conan sagas play out, the guys at Comcast are glued to their sets.
The media, entertainment and marketing worlds continue to shapeshift on a near-daily basis, as new forms arise and old assumptions erode. Where is it all going? No one really knows. But on this blog BusinessWeek’s media writers Tom Lowry and Ron Grover promise to provide ample helpings of scoop, provocation, and sharp analysis as they track and annotate this constantly changing terrain.