After Zucker's Exit, The Dominoes Begin To Fall
CEO’s departure the first of many expected when Comcast takes over NBCU
By Jon Lafayette -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/27/2010 12:01:00 AMToday show wunderkind who had spent 24 years at the company said he’d been told by Comcast COO Steve Burke that the cable giant wants a fresh start when it finally gets the go-ahead to close the acquisition.
The move may signal that more dramatic changes are ahead for the people at NBC Universal, who have been alternately jockeying for position and reading tea leaves to figure out what the future holds.
Ultimately, the key question is how Comcast’s oversight will affect NBC’s signature but struggling broadcast network and its successful cable channels at a time when the television industry is looking to find ways to make money while viewers consume video digitally online, via mobile devices and on whatever other platforms can be dreamed up.
NBC’s advertising customers are hopeful that changes will be for the better. “I think the industry is pretty encouraged that Comcast will do things differently than the General Electric regime did with NBC,” said Harry Keeshan, director of national broadcast at media agency PHD. “We need more competitions, and they haven’t been that competitive.”
The timing of the Zucker announcement fits in with the expectation of many industry observers that Comcast would announce its post-merger executive structure for NBCU this fall. Speculation is rampant around what jobs a number of senior NBC and Comcast executives are in line for—and who will survive. Burke, who is making the decisions, is keeping his cards close to his vest.
Comcast's first order of business is replacing Zucker. The cable company on Sunday announced that Burke would become CEO of NBCU when the transaction closes. Burke has been responsible for integrating major acquisitions for Comcast in the past.
After that, there are a variety of fiefdoms to be divvied up: Who will be put in charge of the broadcast network, currently under Jeff Gaspin, NBC Universal Television Entertainment Chairman? Former Showtime exec Robert Greenblatt continues to be a rumored target for Comcast.
The cable situation is equally interesting. Will someone be in charge of all the cable networks, which now boast several strong executives including Jeff Shell and Ted Harbert of Comcast and Bonnie Hammer and Lauren Zalaznick of NBCU? The jockeying for position in those ranks was called “incredible” by one NBCU executive last week. Other areas, including ad sales and distribution, are likely to be consolidated, resulting in management changes.
This week, Shell’s cable network group will hold an offsite meeting in California. While the meeting was previously scheduled, current events are likely to be top of mind with the gathered executives.
As CEO of NBC Universal, Zucker tried to emphasize the success of the company’s cable networks and other assets while criticism focused on problems at the NBC broadcast network, particularly in primetime dating back to when Zucker ran the entertainment division.
Zucker tried to be a leader in updating the way the broadcast network does business. He championed creating digital extensions of NBC programming; he tried to change the upfront ad sales process, replacing the traditional gala schedule announcement with smaller, earlier meetings designed to give sponsors a better opportunity to be integrated into programming; and he tried to reduce the cost of developing new series by largely eliminating expensive pilots. Ultimately, the networks revenues and ratings did not respond.
His most radical move came last year, when he gave Jay Leno a nightly talk show at 10 p.m. The thought was that a low-cost program could make big profits even if ratings were far below those attracted by the dramas that usually run in that time slot.
Ratings didn’t reach even NBC’s low expectations and affiliates rebelled, forcing NBC to make a change. That change resulted in Conan O’Brien being bought out by the network rather than move his Tonight show back to 12:05 a.m.
Then on Sept. 24, Zucker sent a memo to NBCU staffers announcing his plans to leave.
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