Programming

Regarding Katie

Jeff Zucker outlines the plan for Couric’s new show and candidly opens up about his Hollywood outsider reputation and whether his image needs repairing 9/19/2011 12:01:00 AM Eastern

Jeff Zucker undoubtedly is one of the more
polarizing figures in the television business
in recent years. During his tenure, he built
many parts of NBCUniversal—including its
prominent cable business—into a giant and envied success
story after his meteoric rise at the company. However,
he was at the same time fundamentally unable to
turn around the broadcast network’s primetime fortunes
and saw NBC through a damaging and public mess
in late night—two situations many in the media and
blogosphere seemed to take sheer delight in chronicling.

But since Comcast decided to get out of the Jeff Zucker
business, he has turned his attention to launching a new
daytime show featuring his old pal Katie Couric that will
debut next fall. The syndicated talker from ABC returns
Couric to the comfort zone and better fit of a more relaxed
and personal environment—the one in which she
thrived at the top-rated Today show before a challenging
five-year run at CBS’ Evening News that eventually
produced a solid show but will be mainly remembered
for a failure to live up to what were probably largely
unrealistic expectations from a ratings standpoint.

Over breakfast at the Core Club in New York City,
Zucker for the first time eagerly outlined specific plans
for Couric’s show as ABC takes it out to stations. And
then when talk turned to his reputation in Hollywood
and what went wrong, a very pensive Zucker gradually
painted a self-portrait of a Hollywood outsider who admittedly
didn’t do enough to ingratiate himself in the
town, something he admits came back to haunt him
down the road. Following is an edited transcript of that
conversation.

How did the new show come together?

Just a complete confluence of timing. As I was leaving
NBC at the beginning of this year, Katie was beginning
to think seriously about what she would do next. And
the timing of those two events just coincidentally happened
at the same time.

Had you been talking before those two things
happened?

Remember, I didn’t set my exit time. It just happened
that as I left NBC she was thinking about what’s next
before her contract was up in June and we started
talking. She asked for some advice from me, and that
evolved. If the Comcast deal had closed six months earlier
or a year later, it probably wouldn’t have happened.
It really was a function of timing. One of the things I
did miss about the last 10 or 12 years was having some
kind of actual role in production. It’s where I spent the first part of my life, and I enjoy it immensely. So helping
her launch this was something that appealed to me.

Did you think she was going to end up doing
this?

I thought it was the most likely scenario for her because
I think this genre can best utilize her talents. It’s the right
move for her at the right time. She did the Today show
incredibly successfully for 15 years, she did the Evening
News
for five. Her skill set, her personality and her interests
are best suited for a show where she can be herself.

Was she playing out of position at CBS?

I think this will better utilize her talents.

Did the media attention leading up to her decision
help build buzz?

I don’t think that was necessarily helpful. Katie has always
lived a very public existence both personally and
professionally. There is always a tremendous amount of
attention on whatever she is thinking about.
What kind of syndication marketplace are you
entering?
One of the reasons this made sense for Katie is I do
think there is an opening in the marketplace. With
Oprah’s departure there’s a lot of great shows out there,
and nobody’s ever going to be Oprah again, but I think
there is a place for somebody with Katie’s talent. I don’t
think that hole has been filled yet. I don’t think there’s
been anybody like Katie who has come into syndication
in a long time. So the opportunity to bring her talent
and skill set to that genre is a unique one.

What are your thoughts on Anderson’s early
numbers?

I think it’s too early to draw any conclusions from
those numbers.

What’s the ideal time slot for Katie’s show?

We are looking at this as an afternoon lead-in to early
local news. It will play best at 3 or 4.

Will you get a lot of those slots in year one or
build up to it?

The ABC owned and operated stations have already
committed to 3 p.m. in their markets, I think that’s
where they think it plays best. There hasn’t really been
a program like this that has been as compatible with
local news in a long time. Especially with Oprah’s departure,
for a local TV station it’s a unique opportunity.
I think we’re hopeful that’s how local TV stations will
see it as well.

Where are you in the process?

Good conversations have begun, and the ABC sales
team is actively talking to stations as we speak.

Are you and Katie involved in that?

Certainly to the degree that we can be helpful, we are.

What does that mean?

That process has just begun. We’ll do anything and everything
that’s required to make it a success.

What’s a typical hour going to look like?

We are going to do the show live, be as timely and
topical as possible. We’re not doing a news show, but
hopefully it will be off the news and off the conversation.
Will there be newsmakers? Sure. Will there be
high-profile guests? Sure. But this will not be Nightline.

Will she be in production five days a week?

Four, and as necessary. We won’t be covering the news,
but will be talking about what the news is and what the
conversation is. The real backbone of this show will be
that Katie’s interested in a huge variety of topics. She’s
a single mom who has two teenaged girls, who is dating,
who is thinking about all the issues that parents,
girlfriends are dealing with, and those are all the topics
that will be relevant to this show. Parenting, health, being
a girlfriend, dealing with getting older, dealing with
your kids, dealing with cyberspace. I think you’ll see
the Katie that was so exciting on the Today show, who
could ask the questions you wanted to ask and also have
a great time. It will be serious, it will be fun, it will be
poignant, it will be silly, I think Katie’s unique ability to
run that gamut is what sets her apart. Again, that’s the
Katie you haven’t seen for the last five years, but one
who was as good as anyone when she was doing that.

But will the audience remember that?

That’s our job. First of all, it’s only been five years. But
I think that’s our job to remind them, and then I think
they will see it.

Will each show be single-topic?

Both single-topic and multiple-topic. We don’t want to
be locked into one format.

If she launched last week, what was the ideal first
show? Casey Anthony’s parents?

I was just going to say that—I think what Dr. Phil did this
week was quite good. That kind of topic certainly would
have been the kind of thing you see on Katie’s show.

How’s the hunt for an executive producer going?

We’re in the process of looking for a showrunner. I
don’t want to lock in a timetable, but we’re looking for
someone right now.

Once the showrunner gets settled in, what will
the producing structure be?

I’m excited to be a part of it and make sure it’s successful.
My relationship with Katie, which dates back
20 years, gives us a great opportunity to try and create
something exciting. So I will be very involved in doing
that. At the same time, obviously we are looking for a
showrunner as well.

Will you be in the control room every day at the
beginning?

Yes, or on the floor.

How long until you are not?

I don’t know, I’m not putting any timetable on it.

What is the setup?

With Disney/ABC Domestic Television, led by Janice
Marinelli, they are syndicating it, selling it, and we are
thrilled to be in business with them.

So the show is totally produced by
your entity?

Correct.

Which is called?

We don’t have a name yet.

That’s the joint venture with Katie?

Yes, it is.

Is Ed Wilson still involved?

Yes, he is consulting with us.

Are you involved with anything else
she is doing with ABC?

No, always happy to be a sounding board,
but I have no other involvement with her
and ABC.

Now that you have stepped away day to day, is
anything catching your eye in the business?

I think when you take a step back you notice how prevalent
new technology is in the entire media space, and
just how it dominates every conversation. We knew
that, but when you are able to step back, you see how
prevalent it is. That’s the only real thing I’ve noticed in
a bigger way.

Are you more comfortable now talking about
things from your past?

There are always things you would do differently. I
don’t have any regrets about things I have said or done,
but there are always things you would do differently. All
I have ever tried to do is try to bring to the forefront
things that are sometimes difficult to talk about.

So did you get in trouble for calling it like you
saw it?

I don’t think I got in trouble as much as made some
people uncomfortable. And I understand that.

Do you miss it?

I worked every day of my life for 25 years and having
this opportunity to step back has been nice. There are
parts of it I definitely miss, and parts I of course don’t miss. It’s a very exciting business, and there are parts of
that you always want to be a part of.

What don’t you miss?

It’s nice to take a break from the daily spotlight. Those
are very public positions, and we live in a world with
a huge spotlight on it. It’s nice to step out of that, even
for a little while.

What do you think of Conan’s move to cable?

I think Conan’s immensely talented and there will always
be a place for immensely talented people.

I think the analogy of what you just said there
would be (former NFL running back) Gale Sayers,
the way he dodged tackles. So could you argue
that the NBC thing—after all the drama—has
worked out for the best for NBC, with Jay back
at 11:30, Fallon doing well in Conan’s spot and
Conan not on a rival broadcast network?


It was just a very unfortunate way that the whole thing unfolded,
but I think the NBC lineup is in very good shape.

So do you take any solace in that?

The job that I had, you always had to do what was in
the best interest of the company. We all, myself included,
got hurt in the way that whole drama unfolded, and
a lot of good people got hurt in the process. Thankfully,
NBC’s late-night lineup is in very good shape, even
though it was a very difficult period.

What about the mornings? Should CBS really
shake things up and go in another direction?

I think that when you are in third place you have to try
something different. They haven’t asked for my advice,
but I would say competing against the Today show and
GMA is not a winning proposition.

So what should they do?

Something different. You could do all news, you could
do politics, you could do talk. You could do local.

What would you do?

I’ll save that in case they call.

You standing right by the phone?

(Laughs) Yeah.

Who should buy Hulu?

I think it’s a fantastic asset, tremendous value created
in about five years, I think it could be a great asset for
a lot of companies that are looking at it, any of the
technology companies. I think it makes a lot of sense
for Google, Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft, I think all of them
are potentially fantastic owners of it.

What do you think will happen?

I honestly have no idea.

Are you allowed to talk about Comcast?

I am allowed….

Anything surprise you about what they’ve done?

I think they are incredibly smart people, and the last
thing they need is me analyzing them from the sidelines.

Did the Ebersol thing surprise you?

I think Dick is a true giant and real genius, and I think
any organization is better off with him than without.

So, were you surprised by what happened?

I don’t feel comfortable analyzing any of the decisions
the new team makes. They deserve their right to make
all of those decisions.

In an interview at Promax, you took responsibility
once again for things like the late-night debacle
and not developing another hit after Friends. Is
there a feeling you want to come out and have
a clean slate after NBC?


I’ve always said that the buck stops at the top, and I always
took responsibility for things that didn’t go right.
And just as you get credit for things that go well, I’ve
never shied away from taking responsibility for being
in charge. But I also don’t think there is a lot of value in
looking back because life moves on, time goes on and
the world is changing so fast it’s on to the next thing.

Someone who knows you well told me back in
January that Jeff is going to take a year or two
away, repair his image and then go into politics.
Does your image need repairing?


I hope not.

Were you fired?

There was a change in ownership….

In writing about your exit from NBCUniversal,
The Miami Herald called you a Hollywood outsider.
Are you?

One of the things I never was able to transcend well
enough was the idea that I was a news guy from New
York. And I wish I had done a better job of that. And so in
that respect, I was probably a bit of a Hollywood outsider.

Why didn’t you do a better job of that?

There was never a conscious decision that I didn’t want
to be a Hollywood insider.

Then why didn’t you just play the game?

I think I was a journalist first. And when you are a
journalist, you question a lot of things. I think when
I came to Hollywood, I questioned some of the ways
things were done. That was seen as a threat to a few,
and I did not fully appreciate how that was perceived.

Do you wish you would have done it differently?

Obviously. I don’t have any regrets, but in hindsight
there are things I would have handled differently.

With things like the maligned tenure of Ben Silverman
and the late-night situation—did your reputation
actually hurt the company in that people were
harder on NBC because they didn’t like you?


There were some in the Hollywood community that piled
on and took unfair shots at the company because they
didn’t like some of the things I said or the decisions I
made, and that was very unfortunate for the company.
But I continue to be incredibly proud of the company
we put together and the job we did at every aspect of the
company—other than our inability to fix our primetime.

I asked you at the beginning does your image
need repairing, you said I hope not, but since then
we’ve talked about a lot of things that look like
an image that needs repairing. Do you need to
fix your reputation or relationships in Hollywood?


I love Hollywood. I hope to continue working there. I
don’t think I’m de! ned by what some people in Hollywood’s
perception of me is. But even with those folks,
I can always do a better job.

Am I aware that there are people in Hollywood who
don’t like me? Of course I am. I arrived in Hollywood
as an outsider, and I asked some questions and made
some decisions that were unpopular. I challenged the
status quo, and sometimes that didn’t sit well with
people. I also look back at that time and acknowledge
that if I had to do it over, there are certainly things I
would do differently. I think we all look back on things
we have done in the past and, with the passage of time
and experience, wish we could have done some of them
differently. Luckily, despite all of that, some of my closest
relationships in life were forged in Hollywood, and
those remain incredibly important to me.

What do you want to do after you get Katie’s show
off the ground? Is this politics thing all just BS?

No, I’m interested in politics.

What does that mean?

I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to go into politics.
The guy who launched Jerry Springer just got elected
to Congress, so maybe we could start a trend.

Do you want to be a corporate CEO again?

I think if the right opportunity were there. Those are
very hard jobs to land, but if the right opportunity were
there, I would certainly be interested.

Has anyone reached out to you?

I’ve had a number of very interesting conversations.

What do you want to do? Do you want to go to
work every day?

At some point you can’t play golf and tennis every day
anymore. Yeah, I would like to make sure Katie’s show
is a success and then figure out what’s next.

E-mail comments to bgrossman@nbmedia.com and
follow him on Twitter: @BCBenGrossman

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