Bob Wright's arrival at NBC in August 1986 corresponded with that of a little-noticed young Harvard grad, Jeff Zucker. He had just signed on to become a researcher for NBC Sports' coverage of the Summer Olympics two years later.
Leave it to Zucker, who had earned his bachelor's degree in American history, to appreciate the significance of that particular moment.
Over the years that followed, Zucker had Wright's support on his meteoric rise through the ranks, first conquering the Today show, then heading NBC's programming wing and later overseeing NBC Universal's TV assets. He replaced Wright as president/CEO of NBC Universal in February.
Working for Wright “was a privilege and tremendous learning experience,” Zucker says. “I don't think anyone has a better brain about the business than Bob Wright. He was always incredibly demanding. But having walked in these shoes for past two months, I understand that you can never be satisfied with where you are.”
The departing boss had no key parting words for Zucker, no fatherly words of wisdom. But Wright had imparted enough sage advice over the years to have made a lasting impression on his 41-year-old protégé.
Zucker remembers Wright's always being there for him “personally and professionally,” assisting on the tough calls—everything from setting a new primetime schedule to setting budgets.
There were two defining moments in their decades-long relationship that Zucker will never forget. “He was so supportive of me taking over the Today show at the age of 26,” Zucker says. “It was such a huge gamble and risk for this company to have someone so young take over a franchise like that.”
Wright, however, never looked back and, with his solid backing, Zucker was able to take Today to a dominant No. 1 in the ratings following his January 1992 appointment as executive producer.
He went on to make the morning news show the most profitable program on television and, the next year, briefly ran both Today and NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw.
The other key moment, Zucker says, was tapping him to “take on an oversight of the television properties” after the Universal merger.
While Zucker thinks it is too soon to know how their management styles will differ, he is adamant that the two will always have one trait in common: an unwillingness to settle for the status quo. Says Zucker, “You always want to see what's around the next bend.”
And, like Wright, he emphasizes that his primary concern is about what's best for the entire company, even if that means bruising some egos along the way.
“In these jobs,” he says, “it is all about the team and not any one person.”