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An official announcement is expected tomorrow that Zucker will take the reins from Bob Wright on Apr. 1. Can he revive the media giant?
Jeff Zucker will be named chief executive of NBC Universal on Feb. 6, according to sources inside the business. But that's not the intriguing part. After all, for the past two years, no one but Zucker has really been groomed for the top job. What matters now is how Zucker, 41, will manage the eclectic $16 billion business—which includes a movie studio, cable properties, theme parks, Web-property iVillage, and the flagship TV network.
Can a man who mastered the vagaries of the morning talk show and presided over the company's television group during one of NBC's worst prime-time performances in a generation move the media business back to double-digit earnings? At the very least, it will be a challenge. While he has overseen strong performance in the cable operations—and network offerings like The Today Show remain a hit—he will take over at a time when NBCU has lost some high-profile executives and is still struggling to make a comeback in prime time.
Like outgoing chief Bob Wright, who's retiring a year before many thought he would, Zucker has to grapple with issues like piracy, new distribution models, and a shrinking audience for network TV. And he enters the top job as a polarizing figure, one who draws both raves and daggers in the industry. "He has always had a bit of an attitude," says CBS News anchor Katie Couric, a longtime friend who worked with him at the Today Show. "Anyone in the [top] job has to guard against hubris—and Jeff isn't alone in that," she adds.
Confidence comes easily to Zucker, who is currently CEO of NBC Universal Television Group. He came to NBC as a young Harvard grad, starting as an NBC Sports researcher before moving on to the Today Show, which he famously ran at the age of 26. Throughout successive promotions, he has retained a reputation as a brilliant marketer who likes to go with his gut and win.
Zucker thrives best when there's a rival—a Good Morning America or (now CBS chairman) Les Moonves to taunt. He rallies a team, and he likes to win. "When he sees something important, he won't let you out of the room until it's done," says Donald Trump, whom Zucker signed to do The Apprentice.
But Zucker must adjust his strategy in the new job. Like every media giant, NBCU has to reinvent itself to thrive in a fast-changing digital world. As Stacy Lynn Koerner, president of marketing conglomerate Interpublic Group's consumer-experience practice, puts it: "The dirty little secret about digital is that it's not that profitable." Zucker needs to figure out ways to get advertisers and consumers to pay for it.
The Big Picture
He also needs to make NBCU a much more global franchise and rein in production costs while putting out killer content across various platforms from super-sized movie theatre screens to tiny cell phones. Smart tactical moves, for which Zucker is renowned (he's the guy who blasted competitors by adding extra minutes to Friends), are just part of the arsenal.
As someone who has been on an unobstructed course to the top job in recent years, Zucker no doubt appreciates the challenges he's about to take on. He brings an unvarnished confidence that could again help him weather rough times, though bravado doesn't always translate to bottom-line results. He can look at NBC and know that, thanks to Sunday Night Football and fledgling hits such as Heroes, things are moving in the right direction. Properties including USA Network, Bravo, Sci-Fi, CNBC, and the movie studio are, at the moment, more than earning their keep.
What Zucker has to do now is figure out how the strained media business—the only General Electric (GE) unit to see profits shrink in 2006—will thrive long-term. He would also be wise to surround himself with people who can grasp the big picture. Disney (DIS) CEO Bob Iger has that with Apple (AAPL) chief Steve Jobs, who sits on his board.
Risky New World
Zucker does have the resources of GE, though it's unlikely to make any major investments in NBCU at this point. He has long had a fan in GE Chairman Jeff Immelt. And he could continue to tap the sharp strategic mind of Bob Wright, who will stay on as a vice-chairman of GE for a while.
Zucker's impending promotion thrusts the long-time wunderkind into a new world of daunting challenges. But Zucker, of course, loves a challenge. Now, the industry wants to see if he can turn this one into victory.