As was expected by many, the Comcast era at NBC Universal
will begin without Jeff Zucker. In an announcement
that was perhaps more stunning within NBC for its timing
than elsewhere in the industry, the one-time Today 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
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
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
Then on Sept. 24, Zucker sent a memo to NBCU staffers
announcing his plans to leave.