Fates and Fortunes

Zucker to stay at NBCU under Comcast reign, reports say

10/12/2009 08:07:46 PM

zuckerIt’s way too early to tell, but over the weekend Bloomberg and Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood both ran articles speculating that Comcast Corp. would keep NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker on board should Comcast acquire a majority share in the company.

Since no decision can be made about a sale of NBCU until Vivendi decides whether it’s going to divest its 20 percent share, it’s impossible to say whether Zucker will stay on board a company that currently does not exist. Still, it’s a topic that fascinates everyone who follows the entertainment industry, probably because Zucker himself fascinates us. As soon as word got out that NBCU might finally officially be for sale, people started speculating on Zucker’s future there.

Zucker, 44, has presided over NBC in the most exciting, most expansive and probably toughest time in the company’s history. He was first named president of NBC Entertainment in 2000, after turning The Today Show into a profit-making machine for NBC for the eight years prior to that, starting when he just 26. He’s been at the company for 23 years, beginning as a researcher at NBC Sports immediately after graduating from Harvard in 1986.

Zucker seemed destined for NBC’s top job, and his stints heading various parts of NBC seemed like training for the title that was to come. He was named NBC’s president of entertainment in 2000, and promoted to head of NBC Entertainment, News and Sports in December 2003, which allowed him to move back to New York and keep his eye on the real prize. That arrived quickly enough: Zucker was promoted to president of NBC Universal Television Group in May 2004, partly as a result of NBC’s merger with Vivendi-owned Universal; CEO of that group in December 2005; and president and CEO of NBC Universal in February 2007.

During those years, there have been plenty of high-profile failures paired with less visible successes. NBC Universal’s cable group is a shining star; NBC itself is not. NBC’s Thursday night was must-see when Zucker was named entertainment president; now it’s hanging out in third – and sometimes fourth – place on the once highly-profitable night. Hiring Ben Silverman to run NBC was a love affair that quickly turned sour. Starting Hulu (ok, probably not Zucker’s idea, but still under his purview) has been great for consumers; probably not so much for NBCU. We could all probably do without four hours of The Today Show, although we seem to have gotten used to Hoda and Kathie Lee. And we’re still waiting for the results of the Jay Leno experiment at 10 p.m., although so far the show’s ratings aren’t wowing anyone and they’re already affecting many of NBCU’s other assets, its owned stations and affiliates in particular.

While the media love to focus on those struggles, Zucker’s strongest skills and talents are likely best seen from inside the company. There’s a reason Zucker’s risen so far so fast. And the man is a survivor: when he was struck by colon cancer at 31, he went through surgery and chemo and soldiered on. Thirteen years later, he remains cancer-free.

People may not agree with the way NBC, the broadcast network, has been managed (and many, many don’t — a quick perusal of the comments on Finke’s site proves that) but there’s far more to NBCU than just NBC.

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