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Jeff Zucker Falls Up

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Variety is reporting that Jeff Zucker is going to be promoted to chief executive of the entire NBC Universal company, later today or tomorrow. It’s a curious move, because Zucker has headed up the NBC television business for the last several years, during which, you may recall, there has not exactly been a ton of good news for the network.

Executives often get promoted on the Peter Principle, rising to the level at which they are incompetent. This may actually be a case of an executive being promoted past his level of incompetence. As the executive in charge of deciding what NBC shows got on the air, as head of entertainment programming, he was atrocious at picking shows, both commercially and creatively. You can thank Zucker for Emeril, for instance, and for Joey, high-concept, low-quality star vehicles that only an executive could love.

As I’ve written before, Zucker didn’t seem to have bad taste so much as no taste: covering his moves for years, I could never get the sense that there was anything in primetime TV that he actually liked, other than winning ratings battles. His decisions seemed never to be driven by an entertainer’s sense–this show will catch on, this kind of programming captures something in the zeitgeist–so much as a bean-counter’s rationalism: people like that “Bam!” guy, so they’ll love him in a sitcom! NBC has rebounded creatively in the past season or two (Friday Night Lights, The Office) only after Zucker was succeeded by entertainment chief Kevin Reilly. Among Zucker’ few legitimate hits was The Apprentice, which, coming from Survivor’s Mark Burnett when reality TV was at its peak, did not exactly require a golden gut.

And yet as bad as Zucker is as a creative executive, he seems to have a real gift as a business executive, not just in a dollars-and-sense way but in the sense of being able to tell how the structure and character or TV is shifting. Zucker’s real coups as a programmer were not in picking shows but in scheduling them: he introduced “supersizing” sitcoms, for instance, and easy as it is to make fun of, that required a real, instinctive recognition of how TV is changing for good. TV shows no longer need to be 30 minutes or an hour long; they don’t even need to be on TV. (Zucker’s NBC embraced iTunes and web video relatively early.) It seems like a small thing now, but most set-in-their-ways TV execs did not get that as fast as Zucker did–maybe because he built his career in New York, with the Today show, outside the Hollywood establishment.

With Zucker guiding NBCU’s business direction, and somebody else underneath him doing the actual program-picking and tastemaking that he was so awful at, GE may finally have found Jeff Zucker a job he can be good at. At least they’d better hope so. They’re running out of jobs to promote him to.