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Mr. Zucker, Comcast On Line Three

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.

Reader Comments


January 12, 2010 6:15 PM

Comcast should call NBC, fire Zucker, formally fire Leno, and announce Conan is staying.

P. Lee

January 12, 2010 6:44 PM

The cable channels were successful BEFORE Zucker and Gaspin. We who were at USA Networks and then Vivendi Universal did all of the heavy lifting. The only thing NBC Cable cared about was the Olympics. Yea, that SURE is a money-maker! How about something new with balls on it, eh?

Dan C.

January 12, 2010 9:02 PM

Comcast should call NBC, fire Zucker, formally fire Conan for trailing behind Letterman by 2 million nightly AND for (at best) merely matching Letterman in the 18-49 demographic, and announce Leno is staying.

Actually, I think I have the answer to Zucker.

Anybody ever see that old Startrek episode where Kirk travels to an alternate universe? The Kirk in the alternate universe maintains power because he possesses a secret device that is able to zap his enemies.

Zucker must have such a device. How else can one explain how such an incredibly incompetent moron achieved his position?


January 12, 2010 11:21 PM

Hear that sound--that's NBC going down the drain. Pick Leno or Pick Conan and then treat them right. NBC's behavior is not only not honorable--its bad business--they will never get great talent again and they don't deserve it. That's what happens when you promote the syncophants.


January 12, 2010 11:22 PM

Why loose the NEW Tonight show with Conan O'Brien!!!! Leno has been old hat in his comedy for ages which is a shame because he was good until he and the network made him out to be the new comedy evangelist. I mean people running to the front in the hope that he will look at them or touch their hand?
Conan is the great beginning of the new Tonight Show. He is comedy where Leno is an man that really should get back to the clubs and get in touch with the people not Las Vegas audiences


January 13, 2010 2:51 AM

How about letting Leno save face by giving him the 10 to 11 hour to ruin on on Sunday and ONLY Sunday, and leaving O'Brien, Fallon, and Daly alone?
If not that, there have to be at least 6 hours of Dateline reruns we could live without. Let Leno have THAT and don't mess with late night!


January 13, 2010 2:52 AM

How about letting Leno save face by giving him the 10 to 11 hour to ruin on on Sunday and ONLY Sunday, and leaving O'Brien, Fallon, and Daly alone?
If not that, there have to be at least 6 hours of Dateline reruns we could live without. Let Leno have THAT and don't mess with late night!


January 13, 2010 2:55 AM

Looks to me like Jimmy Fallon is the big winner if Conan leaves. Conan has moments of pure comedic genius; but I lose interest, the show is too much about Conan. At least Leno provides content, with regular bits, especially the 'man-on-the-street' type.
I watched Jimmy Fallon for the first time tonight -- some WSJ writer mentioned that his show was actually the good one. Now admittedly, tonight's guest was Ringo Starr, of course one of my faves, so I was in positive frame of mind. But this seemed like a great show. For one thing Fallon clearly liked being there. He seems more like Carson to me (Johnny, not Daly). Then the Roots band guys really are good. And with Ringo and Ben Harper, the show was filled with good music. I hope it's always this good.

Seems like the best outcome is Jay does half hour or not, Conan goes to Fox, and Fallon starts at 10:30 or 11PM Mountain Time.


January 13, 2010 10:00 AM

They need to fire Conan and bring Jay back. Why all this talk of negotiating a deal with Conan??? He tanked at that hour and should never have been given the slot in the first place. In the real world, the employee doesn't "negotiate" with the employer -- when the employer say, "GO" -- they're out -- and no expensive contract to go with it. Just get rid of the childish jerk and bring Jay back. He proved himself in that slot and everyone loves him.


January 13, 2010 10:09 AM

Once again, a FINANCE guy that is clueless regarding his company's product ruins a franchise. Sounds like another Finance MBA moment. And his contract was just extended as well. The Finance MBA Oligarchy continues to destroy the US.


January 13, 2010 11:36 AM

I never understood why Conan was promised the Leno show when Leno did not want to leave (younger audience/ higher per viewer fee) in light of his #1 position. Regardless, the decision was made by NBC and NBC showed very little class from that point forward. I really don't fault Leno for continuing the gravy train and kind of find it humurous how he will either get a decent buy out or his old gig back for a bad performance. The Leno retirement plan reminds me of the AIG derivative traders who were making lots of coin off volume irrespective of the long term risk. Congrats Leno. Middle finger to NBC. Conan make NBC buy you out prior to jumping to Fox.


January 13, 2010 4:22 PM wonder they're the last network in ratings. chuck and conan are the only things on there worth watching. even the office and 30 rock are losing steam. the best option would be to let leno go. he wasn't canceled before. he quit. god knows why he came back. they don't need him as a lead in. leno did pretty bad when he started out, but then he got everyone behind him. why can't they wait for conan?

in the end i think conan will have the last laugh.


January 13, 2010 7:19 PM

This is a no-brainer! Fire that overpaid moron Jeff Zucker, retire Leno as it should have been done all along, and KEEP Conan (Conan deserves to host the Tonight Show- he's truly funny, NOT past his prime, and worth staying up to watch). I'm not interested in Leno in any shape or form, but I will definitely follow Conan when he moves to another (and competent) network that appreciates his talent.


January 13, 2010 7:24 PM

Conan is the future of Late Night. If Leno's variety show hadn't been on at 10, I would have watched Conan more often.


January 13, 2010 7:31 PM

Zucker got his way due to his surgical history... anybody who thinks ifferently is a moron.


January 13, 2010 7:46 PM

Zucker got to where he was riding Jack Welsh's coat tails at GE. Although Welch is regarded as a legendary leader, the same cannot be said of his protege. Most of the moves Zucker has made have effectively reduced shareholder value - breaking the Golden Rule of business.

I do not agree this is "a typical Financial MBA mess." It will take a seasoned MBA holder to clean up the mess that has been created however. But then again, I'm both an MBA holder and in finance - so I'm biased.


January 13, 2010 9:53 PM

I don't know. I have to agree with Ps about the "typical Financial MBA mess", having lived through several myself. Leno is great, but it's time to let him do something else and give Conan a real chance.


January 13, 2010 10:49 PM

Typical GE management way of thinking; don't worry about putting out a good product, just cut costs. Now look at the mess they created. Couldn't wait to see GE dump NBC though; such a drag on the business.


January 13, 2010 11:13 PM

Leno agreed to quit and pass the reigns on to Conan. He then fails miserably at the 10:00 time slot experiment and wants his old job back? He should stick to his agreement and walk away. After all, itis his failure in ratings that has only compounded the lower ratings suffered by Conan and Jimmy. I can only imagine how much the NBC affiliates 11:00 news ratings have suffered.


January 13, 2010 11:26 PM

What do you guys learn at MBA school anyway? Whatever it is, you guys take all the fun out of business. That's the true nature of this "a typical Financial MBA mess". How can TV be fun when it's just a calculation? How can it be profitable if it's not fun? How can you calculate that? (you better not be able to! lol)


January 13, 2010 11:55 PM

Zucker is an overpaid underachieving idiot, but then again so is Jeff Immelt. General Electric has deteriorated so much from the days of Jack Welch and it probably needs to be split up to save what decent parts are left of the company. I also agree with those suggesting its another case of a know-nothing finance MBA trying to run a business he knows nothing about. Why do we let these people trash American industry? Its bad enough we let them run the banks into the ground and then beg for a bailout - that's an industry they should know something about - but entertainment companies should be run by ex-entertainers or ex-movie directors or something.


January 14, 2010 12:13 AM

No wonder this is a mess. Years ago the wrong decision was made to give Leno the Tonite show instead of Letterman. Heads should have rolled with that decision.
Dave is without a doubt still the best entertainment on late nite television. I could care less if Leno or Conan even have a show as the only truly smart funny entertainer since Carson is Letterman.
NBC could not pay Dave enough to come back as he is priceless.


January 14, 2010 12:13 AM

Leno is funny to the 50+ audience. Just move his show to MSNBC, after Countdown with Keith Olberman.


January 14, 2010 10:12 AM

NBC and Zucker have failed with Leno's 10 pm show, and instead of rectifying that problem by canceling Leno and putting something new in that time slot, they've shown their weak decision-making and management skills as well as their complete lack of entertainment programming savvy. Instead of dealing with the issue at hand, they've made two irreparable mistakes: insulted their late night talent, and shown themselves to be incompetent.

Transitioning from Leno to O'Brien the way they did was a smart move and well-executed. Giving Leno a prime time show was their big mistake. Leno was never funny nor a good interviewer on the Tonight Show. He used to be a good stand-up comic, but he was the worst late-night host ever. He giggles childishly, makes very weak on-the-spot jokes while interviewing, and does not listen to what his guests say. He was a sad and disappointing replacement to Johnny Carson, especially since Carson was the best.

I acknowledge that Leno was popular and consistently won the ratings at 11:35, but Britney Spears sells millions of records too, and I have not and will not buy or listen to any. Being popular in the U.S. is playing to the lowest common denominator; that, Leno could do. His 10 pm show exaggerated his shortcomings. His monologue continued to weaken (it had gotten continuously worse for the past five years on Tonight), his interviewing is now painful to watch, and his new regular segments are not funny, and often uncomfortable to watch.

Today's best late-night hosts, in order, are: Letterman, Ferguson, O'Brien, Fallon, Kimmel. When Leno was still on, he came last, after Kimmel. This list takes into consideration comedic talent, interviewing skills, intelligence and personality/charm. Fallon, getting more comfortable in his skin, just recently surpassed Kimmel, who seems more and more disinterested. The top three are all excellent and have different strengths. David Letterman gets top honors because he is the best interviewer able to ask serious questions while still being very funny. He should have gotten the Tonight Show, but in hindsight, the Late Show was the best career move he could make leaving NBC when they insulted him, and now happily being away from their ineptness as their undoing unfolds 17 years later.

O'Brien and Ferguson are the future. We thought O'Brien was set in his ultimate goal, the Tonight Show, but now we'll see. Whereever he ends up, he'll be a force. And Ferguson will hopefully take over for Letterman once Dave is ready to call it quits. Leno should leave. Now. Hopefully with Zucker. (Fox can have them.)

Guy L

January 14, 2010 11:05 PM

What a mess! How did NBC get to this point? Zucker should get the Zuck out and be fired. And now, it seems the NBC excecs are giving back the Tonight show to Leno. Conan's final show would be on january 22nd. What a shame.

I can see it now. A month from now, Letterman introduces his special guest for the evening, Conan O'brien. The crowd will give an emotional standing ovation at the Ed Sullivan theatre. Ironically, Conan received Letterman on the former ''Late Night'' franchise. I can just imagine the conversation... What a business mess. I'm surprised COMCAST isn't stepping in. Or have they? Maybe they want leno back!

I really hope COMCAST get's rid of Zucker and start NBC off on a brand new page.

Sad. Johnny Carson must be spinning in his grave... or getting the laugh of eternity!!!

One thing is for sure. If Leno comes back, I have had it with the Tonight Show!!!


January 14, 2010 11:39 PM

Watching Conan basically flip off NBC with every joke is like watching Network, except Howard Beale has huge orange hair.


January 16, 2010 1:35 AM

Spot on analysis here. Zucker was hailed as a "wunderkind" at NBC, but no one really knows on what basis. What is clear now is that in his wake he has left a path of utter devastation and failure for NBC. Not firing him now would be an even dumber move.

The Prairie Prankster

February 26, 2010 3:06 PM

Zucker is the embodiment of the Peter Principle, promoted upward despite his many, many failures. Very few with so little talent have gotten away with the fraud that is Zucker.

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