Jeff Zucker, who will be leaving NBC Universal when Comcast assumes control of the media company, says he went from being confident about staying to comfortable with being told to leave over the course of a few months. In this interview Zucker tellsB&C Business Editor Jon Lafayette about how his legacy as his 24-year career at NBC nears an end.
What was the subject of the meeting you had with Steve Burke where you found out you weren't in Comcast's plans?
This was the topic of that conversation. It had been set up to talk about the organization going forward and he told me at that time that when the deal closed they wanted me to move on. And I will say that did not come as a huge surprise to me. It had become increasingly clear to me over the last few months that was what they were going to want to do and I had become increasingly comfortable with that myself, understanding that it was going to be a different place with a different owner and very different from the way that I had had autonomy here and I had operated and so I had gotten to the place where I thought it probably didn't make a lot of sense for me either.
Had your future been discussed before? You'd always seemed fairly confident you'd be sticking around.
That's true. Look, one, I'm an employee and two, I was under contract, three I was following Comcast's lead. But there was a question asked at the end of [a lunch with reporters in June]. One reporter said ‘why would you want to stay? It's not going to be as much fun. Remember that? I have to say, it's weird, that question had a tremendous impact on me that I hadn't before considered or really thought through. It just really struck me and it wasn't till afterwards that I really thought a lot about it. And it turned out I think he was absolutely right. And I think that's my point, is that I realized it's going to be a different place. Doesn't mean better, doesn't mean worse. It's just going to be different. When a company spends billions and billions of dollars to buy another company, they usually put their own management team in place and they certainly put their own stamp on the place and that's what they're entitled to do. It's just going to be different. So for me it probably started to make sense that it wasn't going to be as enjoyable for me and I think the questioner was right. And so that's how I got to the same place that they were.
That conversation was two weeks ago. Who did you tell?
I didn't tell anybody.
Well, I told my wife and then a couple of days later I began having conversations with GE about departing.
No job for you at GE either?
I love GE. They've been incredibly good to this company and to me, but I think I'm better suited to producing than aviation.
In these meeting with Burke, had you been making recommendations about how to best organize the new company.
The one thing that I really want to do is stay away from any comment about organization going forward. I think it's been a very difficult period for people to read about speculation and I so I'm going to stay away from that.
You'll probably have the same answer to this: Have you been making personnel recommendations and identifying some of the executives you've worked with a people that should be considered for bigger jobs with the organization?
You only recently signed a new contract and I think you said that contract was guaranteed. Does that mean we won't be holding any benefits for you?
Look, I don't want to comment on any aspects of that, but I'm fine.
What do you think is the legacy you're leaving from this period of history at NBC?
I've been here for 24 and a half years and I think it's been a pretty remarkable run in that time. I think personally I'd like people to remember me as being creative and innovative, willing to take risks, cared a lot about diversity and created a culture of cooperation and collaboration that's pretty rare in media these days. From a tactical standpoint, we revolutionized morning television, we took the assets that Bob Wright put together and we supercharged them and turned this into a powerhouse cable network company that's probably the best in the business; we expanded tremendously internationally, grew digitally, expanded in an enormous way the amount of production this company does; we started an animated film studio; we opened a cable television studio; we opened an international television studio; we became a news and information powerhouse, so I think those are among the things.
Do you ever think back says maybe I shouldn't have left news?
No. Not at all. Look, I love news. It's in my DNA. But I've been able to play a tremendous role in news in my current capacity and across the company, but at NBC News, MSNBC, CNBC, our local television stations, and I feel very proud about that.
Do you see yourself as an executive or a producer going forward?
I wouldn't rule either of those out. I like both. There was never anything more fun than being a producer.