Jeff Zucker thought he'd give this NBC thing two years. That's about how long his first job—as a researcher for the network's coverage of the 1988 Summer Olympics—was going to last. He'd gotten the network's offer the day he graduated from Harvard in 1986 with a degree in American history.
But Zucker's major bespeaks his other great ambition: the law. While he deferred entry into the University of Virginia School of Law for those two years, he'd also been rejected by Harvard Law School, an event that stung terribly at the time but which he now calls “the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”
“I would have gone,” he says of Harvard Law, “and had I done so, I most likely wouldn't have enjoyed this great [nearly] 25 years at NBC and NBC Universal, and probably would be toiling away in some legal library today.”
The legal profession's loss has been the television industry's gain. Zucker, NBCU's president and CEO, enters the B&C Hall of Fame with the class of 2009 thanks to a quarter-century of innovative thinking and a well-earned reputation as a risk-taker at a time when taking chances is especially vital.
Refusing to play it safe has served him well at every point in his career. After joining NBC News as a field producer for Today in 1989, he was made executive producer of the morning show in 1992; at age 26, he was the youngest exec producer in the show's history.
“He would try things, and that takes a certain amount of courage,” says CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric, who co-anchored Today under Zucker. “He changed the commercial structure; he moved commercials down at the end of the half hour. After that, other [morning] shows followed suit.” In the Zucker years, Today became the nation's most-watched morning news show and the most profitable program on television.
But it was also during this period that Zucker faced—and faced down—his biggest personal crisis: two bouts of colon cancer, when he was 31 and 34. Surviving the experiences shifted his perspective and gave him a much thicker skin about any negative press he has endured.
“It taught me what pain is all about,” he says. “I remember vividly waking up in the recovery room [after one surgery], feeling more pain than anyone should have to endure. So whenever somebody says something nasty or negative, it'll never haunt me as much.”
Zucker accepted the job of president of NBC Entertainment at the end of 2000, added the news and cable groups to his domain in 2003 and was named president of the NBC Universal Television Group in 2004, after the company's merger with Vivendi Universal. During his tenure, Zucker brought Donald Trump and The Apprentice to television, negotiated to keep Friends on TV up to its 10th and final season, and steered the network to bring in hundreds of millions in additional earnings. NBC also had an unprecedented run of top ratings in TV's key 18-49 demographic until recent years.
In addition to NBC's cable channels MSNBC and CNBC, Zucker's responsibilities now included USA, SyFy and Bravo, networks that have continued to plot successful paths as NBCU expanded beyond its broadcast roots. And at the end of 2005, Zucker became CEO of NBC Universal Television Group behind his mentor, Bob Wright, rising to his present position early in 2007.
“At the beginning of 2001, we were still a traditional broadcast company, and years later, Jeff was sitting on a multimedia company,” says Zucker's close friend Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics. “With the addition of Universal the studio, increasing the number of cable entities and with the broadcast business [getting] smaller, we're probably as well set as almost anybody in the industry now because our cable parts are wildly successful and unique.”
Zucker's talent for being open-minded to all options, and never being afraid to choose something less obvious, has kept him among the leading voices of his industry in the midst of uncertain economic times.
“He can sit in a room with all kinds of disparate arguments going on, “ Ebersol says, “absorb them all and give a decision where you know he didn't come in with it totally preordained.” Adds Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBCU Television Entertainment, “He has an extraordinary capacity for information. It allows him to get to the details that he did as a producer, and allows him to understand everyone's business he's managing.”
It was with a producer's sensibility and a CEO's mind that Zucker made arguably his most controversial move last December, announcing that he had signed Tonight Show host Jay Leno to do an hour-long primetime comedy series weeknights on NBC. Zucker, a man who had long been known for “supersizing” comedies on the network, had suddenly remade the primetime television landscape at a moment when visionary ideas were most necessary. While the move shocked many and his rivals pounced, it's indicative of an executive philosophy that continues to place a high value on instinct, intelligence and imagination.
“You can't please everybody all the time,” Zucker says. “You have to do what's right for the company, and [also] always keep the viewer or the moviegoer in mind.
“We're in an incredibly transformational era where the power of digital is [affecting] everything we do,” he continues. “I think today's media executive has to figure out how to entertain and inform today's consumer, in ways we never thought about even five years ago.”
Given the last 25 years as proof, Zucker has built a case for being among a handful of industry executives who have re-imagined the possibilities of television. And he continues to meet an uncertain age with visionary thinking and a record for success.
“I don't think there's been a time in Jeff's life that he wasn't on a growth curve,” Ebersol says. “Even when he's hit an obstacle, it's a short blip before things are going back up again.”—Robert Edelstein