Everybody’s Losing Their TV Job Day continues, as the New York Times breaks the news that NBC Universal head Jeff Zucker will step down once the company is taken over by Kable Town Comcast. Zucker tells Bill Carter that the move is not his choice, but it was clear the new owners wanted to bring in their own team.
Over the past decade, Zucker has taken plenty of shots—including from here—as he continually rose at NBC and the larger corporation regardless of the network’s setbacks, failure to develop new hits and the experiment / affiliate rebellion of Jay Leno in primetime. (At one point it seemed the pattern of divergent results-vs.-reward would only end when NBC went out of business and Zucker became Emperor of the Universe.) His ability to defy gravity, it would seem, has finally failed him.
While I’ve taken my shots at him over the years, though, I also admire Zucker in a lot of respects. I believe he has a strong big-picture idea of where media are going as a business, and of the pressures on broadcast TV as audiences shrink and old revenue streams are endangered. I interviewed him many times and found him to be sharp and well-spoken on those kinds of questions.
It was when it came to, well, putting TV shows on the air that Zucker had a problem. He was a skilled TV executive who proved his chops running the Today Show, but he never seemed to have the golden gut needed to make strong picks in primetime entertainment, especially dramas and sitcoms. His best moves were tactical: supersizing shows like Friends, expanding Today. But I never got the feeling that he had any aesthetic sense for what scripted shows were right for NBC, or even what he himself liked.
Putting Jay Leno in primetime was the ultimate Zucker tactical move. And to be fair, while it was not a raging ratings (let alone creative) success, Leno did equal or slightly better his late-night rating while cutting costs. But the Comcast acquisition empowered the affiliates who hated Leno as a news lead-in, and The Jay Leno Show was quickly yanked so that discontented stations did not scotch the deal. (Leading to the Jaypocalypse with Conan O’Brien.)
The Comcast buy, it turned out, was also the end of Jeff Zucker at NBC; it just took a little longer. He had quite a long run, though—surprisingly long—and like him or not, substantially helped shape broadcast TV as a business. If not as an art form.