Fates and Fortunes

Zucker, Klein and Wadsworth: this week's final trio

9/24/2010 05:15:12 PM

It’s been a week of threes.

Three American Idol judges: J. Lo, Steven Tyler, Randy Jackson.

Three Warner Bros.’ presidents: Bruce Rosenblum, Jeff Robinov, Kevin Tsujihara.

And now three major executives are stepping down: NBC Universal’s Jeff Zucker, CNN’s Jon Klein and Disney Interactive Media Group President Steve Wadsworth. All three men held positions at the top of currently shaky organizations: NBCU is in the process of being acquired by Comcast, and the NBC network remains in fourth place after a long post-Friends primetime slump; CNN has fallen to the bottom of the cable news network ratings races; and Disney is apparently escorting TV executives out the door by the day, with ABC Entertainment chief Steve McPherson and longtime ABC News chief David Westin both recently exiting the company. The difficult environments at all three companies have been reported on almost daily, so the departure of any of these three executives isn’t really a surprise.

Still, that Zucker apparently finally went willingly does seem surprising. Rumors that Comcast wouldn’t keep him had been circulating from about the second that rumors about the deal went live last fall. Zucker is nothing if not a fighter – he’s moved from intern to CEO at NBC and he’s survived two bouts of colon cancer – so I assumed he would hang on until the bitter end. That was not to be though, and as Zucker told the New York Times’ Bill Carter, Comcast COO Steve Burke made it clear two weeks ago that Zucker would not be continuing to run NBC.

I’ve been as critical as anyone about some of Zucker’s decisions at NBC – particularly the disasterous decision last fall to move Jay Leno to 10 p.m. – but I’ve also been following the man’s career for at least a decade and I’ve interviewed him several times. He has always been gracious, sometimes even accommodating when my request for an interview fell in the middle of press tour and was borderline ridiculous to fit in. (And led to a less-than-prescient story on how losing Friends wouldn’t be so bad for NBC because it would save the network a lot of money.)

When Zucker writes to employees that agreeing to leave NBC, whether it was his decision or not, “has not been an easy or simple decision,” I believe him. NBC is Zucker’s identity.

“I have spent my entire adult life here, more than 24 years,” he says. “This is the only place I have ever worked. The only professional thing I have ever known. I met my wife here, enjoyed the birth of our four children in that time, worked in almost every division of the company. And forged relationships, both professional and personal, that will last a lifetime.”

People may not like Zucker or agree with his decisions but on a day when an important chapter of his life is ending, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to grant the man some respect and compassion. Like I said, he’s a fighter. He won’t be out of the game for long.

Likewise, CNN’s Jon Klein also is leaving the network and being replaced by Ken Jautz. B&C’s Marisa Guthrie reports that when asked if Klein thought the network’s primetime ratings contributed to his departure, Klein said, “I don’t know. But I don’t think so. We had hatched our plans to address those issues.”

Public service announcement to media executives: if your ratings are in the toilet, and you lose your job, then yes, that was a contributing reason.

Moving along, yet another top executive departed Disney, with Wadsworth joining McPherson and Westin in the parade of execs marching out Disney’s door. The New York Times, which also was first on this one, is already speculating that Wadsworth will be replaced by John Pleasants, CEO of social-gaming company Playdom, which was acquired by Disney in July.

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