NBC News producer Jeff Zucker thinks he can recharge the network's prime time schedule-with a little help from Friends
Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/21/2001 7:00:00 PM
He has run NBC Nightly News. He has been the executive producer at Today for the past seven years, building it into a $400 million-a-year cash cow. He called the shots on NBC News' election-night broadcasts in 1996 and 2000. And he has been involved in a number of NBC's Olympic telecasts over the past 15 years.
And now, at 35, Jeff Zucker is the president of entertainment at NBC.
In an ugly and rushed transition last month, Zucker was brought in to replace Garth Ancier, who took the fall for the network's lackluster fall season.
Zucker has no experience in developing comedies, dramas or reality programs-exactly what his new position requires him to do. But few people in New York, where a 26-year-old Zucker became the youngest executive producer of Today, doubt he can do the job.
Zucker, who has battled colon cancer twice over the past five years, comes to NBC Entertainment at a time when its programming future is at a crossroads. The network canceled four of its new fall series before Christmas (Titans, The Michael RichardsShow, Tucker and Deadline); veteran comedy Frasier is at the center of a renewal battle; and NBC's grip on the key 18-49 demographic looks vulnerable. The network that produced The Cosby Show, Family Ties and Seinfeld is in dire need of some new comedy hits as its current crop ages. What's more, the network's prized Thursday-night franchise will be challenged by CBS' second installment of Survivor. And the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild are threatening strikes.
Undaunted, Zucker made his first major move last week, unveiling a plan to bolster the Thursday-night lineup during sweeps by extending Friends an extra 10 minutes on four nights. On two of those nights, NBC will fill out the second half-hour with 20 minutes of fresh Saturday Night Live skits. Zucker is still looking for compelling filler for the other two nights.
Zucker sat down with BROADCASTING & CABLE'S Joe Schlosser to discuss his new gig and the shift from running Today to running an entire network's programming skein.
You said you wanted to protect NBC's "Must See TV" Thursday-night lineup. It didn't take too long for you to make your move.
Look, we're trying. The easiest thing for us to have done would have been to put some repeats in the 8:30 p.m. time slot. But, you know what, we just don't want to take the easy way out. And I think that's what it's all about. We try to take a look at things a little differently.
How did you arrange for Friends to go 40 minutes and for Saturday Night Live to get involved?
When I got out here, this was clearly the first priority, to deal with this. We sat around talking about this. I went to see the producers of Friends, who, I have to say, were incredibly receptive and supportive about not just sitting back. I could not imagine having a better first meeting with anybody in town. They were terrific. We kicked around ideas, and this is what came out of it.
Once you decide to go long with [Friends], we didn't have any shows that are short. So we started kicking around what could do this, and probably no show on television had a better first half of the season than Saturday Night Live. We are hoping that this will expose even more people to the show. It comes without any expectations. They don't have to prove anything, and they have one of the greatest traditions in all of television, and they are coming to our rescue and riding in on the white horse.
Why 40 minutes for Friends and not a full hour or something else?
The key was to go a little long with these shows without hurting them. We didn't want to go long just for the sake of going long. We wanted to keep the integrity of the program, and it was in discussions with the producers that we realized that this could be done without hurting the integrity of Friends.
Is Lorne Michaels going to produce a weeknight version of SNL?
No, no. He's being an incredible team player, going above and beyond.
NBC is set to lay off 5% to 10% of its work force over the next several months. How will that change your plans? That's something that we are looking at right now, and we are assessing what we can do to make sure that what the viewer sees is not affected. We will deal with that over the next few weeks. To the degree we can do this through attrition is absolutely our goal, and hopefully, it will be minimal changes with regard to current employees.
Scott Sassa has said that Garth Ancier did fine on the programming side of this job, but he couldn't handle the business side of the position.
I can't talk about what happened before because I'm not familiar with that. I wasn't here, and it's neither here nor there. All I can say is that I think that, for the last 10 years, I have worked on both sides of the business in what I've done at Today and all of NBC News and I do have experience on both sides.
Is comedy the biggest area of concern for you this spring?
Well, look, it's interesting what happened at NBC in the last few years. NBC has really developed the best dramas in television. So I would say that certainly comedy is a bigger priority than dramas. I wouldn't want to put numbers on it, but I think it's just an overall priority and certainly we have bigger comedy needs than drama needs.
Will you be doing full-fledged pilots or the scaled-back, cheaper presentation tapes that Garth Ancier brought to the network last year for the first time? And how will the potential strike affect your development process?
We are going to do pilots. I honestly don't know why decisions were made and how they played out last year, but we are just going to go with pilots. To be honest, that decision was made before I was here, and that's that. And in terms of the strike, we are operating under the assumption, with regards to pilots and all of that, that there will be a full season next season. That's the way we are proceeding.
What is wrong and what is right with prime time television these days?
I think there is so much right with prime time network television. That assumes that there is a lot wrong with it. There is so much great stuff across the board. I just think that what happens a lot in television, whether it's prime time or not, that, when something works, everybody tries to imitate it. There is just an imitative quality to a lot of stuff that then kills the golden goose.
On the positive side, look at the dramas of NBC. Who wouldn't want The West Wing on their schedule? And look at a show like ER, now in its seventh season. It's at the top of its game. So there is a lot of great stuff going on in network television. I think what we have to continue to do is reach the younger viewers who haven't grown up on network television but have spent their time online and watching MTV. How do we reach them?
Do you have a plan for that?
No. I think those are our challenges.
You've said that it's time to start "rolling the dice" a little bit. What do you mean by that?
I think sometimes you have to take chances with either people or ideas that aren't necessarily things that you would have tried before. We have a very clear identity and a very clear brand from Tuesday to Friday night, but, you know, the XFL is a good example of rolling the dice.
As a news producer, can you identify or foresee trends in the American public before the rest of us?
I don't think it's necessarily so because you're a news executive, but I think there are some subtle cultural changes as you move from a Clinton administration to a Bush administration. As you move from the last 10 years of what we have had on the economic front, I think that will portend certain subtle differences in what people might be looking for.
I also think that you can read into the fact that basically the country is pretty split 50-50 in the election and in Washington; that tells you something about why it's hard to find mass hits. There really are two distinct ideas in this country of what the country should be and wants to be. How does that translate into developing hit shows? I don't know if there is a direct correlation, but it does give you reason to understand why it's very hard to find a show that the whole country can rally around.
How did your getting named entertainment president come about? Who approached whom?
Scott and I have talked about this for two years, and we've had ongoing conversations. I don't mean to overblow that. It's not like every month we were talking about it. But he knew it was something that I would consider. Much has been made about Bob Wright putting me here; the reason that I think there is confusion on this is that I can't just come off Today lightly. Today is one of the most important programs that NBC has in any daypart, and it's certainly a tremendous engine that drives NBC, so Bob had to be brought in to that discussion because that's not a discussion that you can have lightly. But it was really Scott who started talking to me about this more than 21/2 years ago.
Was that about the NBC Studios job, as has been widely reported?
[Answering the question is] not worth it.
You've accomplished so much so fast.
I have worked really hard; several times I have been in the right place at the right time, and I've trusted myself and had enough confidence in my gut to make decisions that maybe others would have been scared of that turned out well for me.
Did you have to give up a lot to get where you are now?
I think maybe early on. I probably did give up a lot early on and devoted myself and worked hard and kicked ass. So, sure, I have made sacrifices along the way, no question. But you know, I have a great wife and two beautiful children, and so I feel my life is really complete, and I don't regret any of those sacrifices that I made long ago.
Not much of a first day on the job, getting hit by CBS with Survivor opposite NBC's Thursday-night lineup and Friends.
It was, "Welcome to L.A."
How has the reaction been to you in Hollywood?
I don't know what they are saying behind my back, but everybody has been incredibly supportive and kind.
On the renewal of Frasier, is there any amount that you won't pay? And what is your role in renewing that show?
Scott and [Paramount TV head Kerry McCluggage] are working on that now, and I think everybody is hopeful that that will work out. Frasier is a great show. We want Frasier to stay here, and we want Kelsey Grammer to stay here. I know Kelsey just said that he wants to stay here, and we'll try to make that happen.
How has your outlook on life and on the TV industry changed after your bouts with colon cancer?
I think it did help put everything into perspective. No matter what happens here and whether we have hits or misses, it's only television. At the end of the day, I have my family and my health, and that's what really matters. I have had colon cancer twice. The first time was in 1996, and I was out for about three months and went through a year of chemotherapy. Then I had colon cancer again last year for the second time, and I was out for another three months.
Letting go of Today-how hard is that for you?
It really hasn't been an issue because I have such a full-time job and more on my plate right now than I can even handle in terms of getting it all done. The Today show is in such great shape, with such great people there that it's not even something that I really worry about. I love that show, and it will always be an important part of my life, but letting go is not an issue.
At the Television Critics Association meetings earlier this month, you were asked whether Today would be coming to prime time TV. Is there anything from your background-whether sports or news-that you are looking to bring to NBC's prime time lineup?
The Today show will not be coming to prime time. Look, I think we are all bound by our experience and shaped by our experience. So there are no plans for any of that. I do have a background in all of that stuff, and that shapes the decisions we make in everything. That doesn't mean I have any specific ideas or plans with regard to any of that. But, look, every decision that everybody makes as an individual is shaped where they come from and what they've done.
Do you come to Hollywood with any sitcom or drama ideas of your own?
I've thrown out some ideas. Everybody has got ideas. It doesn't mean anything right now, though. How about "Chalk Talk With Tim Russert"? Think about the merchandising possibilities.
Every election, we hear new senators and members of Congress say that they are not going to get caught up in the "Inside the Beltway" rhetoric and game. Can you come to Hollywood and not get caught up in the game, and bring fresh ideas and a new voice?
Time will tell. How do you judge any of that without seeing any of that? Look, I'm not here because I want to be a part of any scene. I'm here because I want to do a good job, have some fun, and, at the end of the day, go home and be with my family.
Do you think there will be a strike this year?
I hope not. Part of the fun about coming out here is being able to actually do the job, and it's not something that I would want to see happen or I would think would be in anybody's interest. But we'll see what happens.
How long do you plan on being here? Garth lasted 18 months.
I hope to be here for a long time. I just want to do a good job, and I think at the end of the day you are judged by that.
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