Left Coast Bias: Is Jeff Zucker the Smartest Man in TV After All?

Bashing NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker may be a popular industry sport, but some of his words and actions in the past year could be considered dead-on

Related: Q&A With Jeff Zucker

Is Jeff Zucker the smartest man in television after all? While that sentence probably just made some people spit out their coffee, it crossed my mind while we were all busy questioning our entrenched beliefs about the industry last week.

Now, to even get to that thought, you have to get past some serious hurdles. First you have to make one major assumption that many are unwilling or unable to make: that the network television model as we know it is gradually, fundamentally breaking down. That is no fault of NBC.

Obviously network TV is still big business, as Les Moonves pointed out last week. But it just ain't what it used to be. Look at where the numbers are heading. The Mentalist, this year's breakout hit, is on my Season Pass list (I'm not normally a crime drama guy) and will be on the air for years on CBS. It is averaging a 4.0 in the demo. That's a huge hit, circa 2008.

Next, you have to acknowledge as fact that under this regime, NBC can no longer deliver 22 hours of compelling original entertainment. That is entirely the fault of NBC. Jay Leno put it best when he said a lot of people were shocked “not that I was moving to primetime, but that NBC still had a primetime.”

There is no formula for judging hit shows or great executives, but it is worth noting that ousted entertainment chief Kevin Reilly got a new job at the No. 1 network in about 11 minutes, and many think recently canned studio chief Katherine Pope may be on a similar timetable.

A final hurdle you would have to get over is the sheer dislike many in Hollywood have for Zucker. It is well known that bashing him is one of the most popular sports in the industry, as he and Hollywood have never liked the way the other operates.

So if you can put aside all of that, some of his words and actions in the past year could be considered dead-on.

Jay Leno shocked the industry when he took NBC's 10 p.m. offer. Let's be honest, we all had him fitted for mouse ears. But outside of some risk-averse affiliates and some members of Team Conan, I haven't heard of anyone who thought this was anything but a coup for NBC and Zucker.

Is Zucker giving up on 10 p.m.? Sure. But guess what? Zucker's not the only one who considered it. It turns out the people at ABC had mulled Leno at 10, not just the 11:35 as we all expected.

Everyone is evaluating everything. Many have modeled turning time back to affiliates, as Fox just did on Saturday mornings. And while the CW-MRC deal tanked, ABC apparently last year talked to Warner Bros. about farming out Friday nights. This just in: Everyone out there sees the storm brewing.

On the back of an envelope, the Leno numbers seem to work. NBC was ready to pay Letterman-like money, upward of $35 million, but they got him at less than 30, plus ratings bonuses. With costs of about $2 million a week as opposed to as much as $15 million a week for five original dramas (development money aside), I understand that NBC makes money if the show does a 1.2 rating. That number would kill them perception-wise, but many early guesses seem to anticipate he'd average just under a 2.0.

Zucker got hammered by many this year when he said the network was backing off on the development cycle. While he says a lot of that was misunderstood, he didn't get ripped for the idea so much as because people thought he was making a grand proclamation about what others were already doing. Fox, for instance, has never stuck to the typical fall launch schedule, and it is No. 1.

But talking about revamping the network development process and now cutting back in primetime are steps in the experiment that has to take place everywhere, last place or first. No one knows if Leno at 10 will work. The thinking, however, is dead-on.

Television is a business so deeply anchored by inertia that it can barely move. So whether you think Jeff Zucker is driven by desperation, and whether or not you like the guy, it may be worth stepping back to see what he is talking about. He just may be right this time.