NBC made the midseason change everybody was expecting, and surprised everybody anyway. Veteran Today
show producer Jeff Zucker, 36, who has no Hollywood experience, has been named the network's new entertainment president, replacing Garth Ancier and putting an end to months of speculation about the network's programming direction.
Ancier, former WB and Fox programming chief, who had been NBC's top programmer for the last 18 months, had been under fire for not producing a Survivor-
type series and failing to develop a breakout series this season.
He's also executive consultant and part owner of syndicated talk show Ricki Lake, and has been offered a deal to set up his own syndication and network production company with NBC. However, because of his WB past and 2% ownership stake, he has a strong relationship with Tribune Co., and he could up there.
Ancier, reached the day after being let go, says he is already looking into some syndicated projects, including a potential daytime talk show. "I would be very surprised if syndication did not play a big part in my future," says Ancier. "It's an area that I really adore, I think its an area that I'm good at and I certainly want to keep at. I'm still involved with Ricki."
Ancier will likely receive between $2 million and $4 million to settle the remaining two and half years left on his contract.
Moving Zucker in apparently is a sign NBC wants to do things differently, and in one way of looking at it, "news" is reality programming, just without the prizes: "What last year taught us, is that the conventions of the past don't stand up in the future," says NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa. "You have to come up with new things that are going to capture the imagination of people out there. If you think about the job Jeff had, he made hundreds of decisions about popular culture each day."
The Ancier ouster occurred less than two weeks after Sassa failed to give Ancier a vote of confidence during a November sweeps conference call with entertainment reporters. Sassa, a numbers whiz kid who relishes the day-to-day business grind and Ancier, a programming wunderkind who trained under former NBC Entertainment chief Brandon Tartikoff, couldn't see eye-to-eye on the daily business chores.
"This is not about the performance of our programming. We are right in the hunt with our new shows and clearly we are right in the hunt where everybody else is with these new shows and clearly our established shows are doing really well," says Sassa. "This was about it not being a good fit."
A number of rival studio and network executives weren't buying that late last week. They say the failure of Titans, Deadline, Tucker
and The Michael Richards Show, just highlighted the fact that NBC was out of the reality race.
As for Zucker, he has been overseeing NBC's enormously successful morning show for the last six and a half years and has strong ties to NBC president and CEO Bob Wright and outgoing GE Chairman Jack Welch. He took a leave five years ago to fight colon cancer (now in remission). He joined NBC Sports in 1988 as a research assistant, right out of Harvard. This season, Zucker also oversaw the network's election and political convention coverage.
"I come as outsider from the inside," says Zucker. "I know what's important for the success of a prime time schedule and I can provide a fresh set of eyes to look for that. I think that what I have done in producing and programming translates exactly to what we need to do. These are the same kinds of decisions we make everyday (at Today
) in terms of what people like and don't like."
Notes one high-ranking Hollywood executive, "He is an aggressive guy, who is well liked, and you don't accomplish what he has accomplished at 36 by not having something on the ball."
Zucker will move to Los Angeles and get started in early January. Michael Bass, a senior producer on Today, has been named interim executive producer of Today.
Zucker joins at a good time for a learner. The development process for next fall is under way and he will now have time to meet the numerous agents, writers, producers and talent that come with the turf. Sassa says Zucker will also be in good hands with NBC Studios head Ted Harbert (who was a likely candidate for Ancier's job) and other veteran executives ready to give a crash-course on prime time programming.