Time to Close Book on Zucker Until He Really Opens It

It's time to close the book on Jeff Zucker's tenure at the top of NBC Universal, until he wants to really open it. There's no need for any more public interviews about prime-time ratings cratering or the Jay-Conan imbroglio. Or, on the flip side, NBCU becoming a strong cable operation and NBC News remaining strong under his leadership.

Zucker has apparently said all he's going to say and doesn't add much each time he does a "fireside chat"-type discussion, as he did Wednesday at the PromaxBDA event. For a person who's expressed an interest in politics, he's got the say-a-lot-without-saying-much thing down.

That's not say he couldn't wow an audience with details about how he won the chance to replace Bob Wight at the top of NBCU over Randy Falco, now Univision's COO.

Or, about contentious negotiations with Dick Wolf about keeping "Law & Order" on the air.

Or, on how Kevin Reilly reacted when Zucker removed him from entertainment chief, which sent Reilly to Fox, where's he's produced at least one hit in "Glee" NBC would covet.

Or, perhaps how Zucker may have tried to persuade Comcast's Steve Burke to allow him to continue leading NBCU after Comcast took control.

But none of those yarns are coming.

With a lucrative severance package, Zucker may be sitting on all sorts of non-disclosure agreements.

Clearly, he's sitting on a great memoir, but he won't be writing that any time soon. As a producer -- Katie Couric's new talk show is a start -- he's now on the other side of the business, pitching friends and foes on new ventures, so any barbed commentary would be imprudent.

Zucker's comments on his departure from NBCU do offer an impressive degree of humility and reflection. The business could use more of that.

He basically says he'll take the blame as long as he gets the credit.

The blame is for an inability to return NBC's prime-time schedule to its success dating back to the 1980s.

"Our problem and my problem is we really couldn't find a successor to 'Friends' and that was the biggest issue," he said Wednesday.

He noted other networks struggled with developing hit comedies, too, but "that's not an excuse."

Overall on the prime-time struggles, he said: "Obviously, I feel terrible about that."

For a person who became the executive producer of "The Today Show" at such a young age and had the meteoric rise at NBCU, you get the feeling that professionally, it was the one mountain he felt he couldn't climb and there is profound regret.

Notably within prime time, people can't seem to stop talking about the failure that came with moving Leno to 10 p.m. Zucker said he doesn't regret trying it, just that it didn't work.

Partly driving the move were changes in how people consume media that Zucker identifies and make for a compelling argument. A desire for the tack to cut programming costs, obviously proved to be short-sighted.

When the experiment failed, Zucker's decision-making that ultimately brought Leno back to 11:35 p.m. and led to Conan's departure may or may not have been the right business decision, but it was not the upright one, which should count for something. For some reason known to him, Leno had agreed years before to give up the spot to Conan and NBC promised Conan the opportunity.

For that, Zucker and NBC should have stood by Conan, giving him more time to try and make his run at "The Tonight Show" work. If that meant Leno would be at ABC, well sometimes there is principle before profit. 

As for the credit Zucker wants, that fairly includes turning cable networks such as Bravo and USA into successes, bolstering CNBC and MSNBC, making the acquisition of Oxygen and taking a stake in the Weather Channel.

"We really set out to remake the company, we became at our heart a cable network company," he says. 

There's also keeping the NBC News properties such as "The Today Show" and "Nightly News" strong.

What does get lost sometimes is even while cable grew under Zucker, much of the assets he had to work with came from acquisitions and moves made by Bob Wright and his team. Wright's extraordinary two-decade-long run at NBC may be underappreciated now.

Zucker occasionally does make a nod to it. But now that he's sort of floating above the fray, perhpas more of that is needed. Credit to others can bring credit to oneself.

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1 comment about "Time to Close Book on Zucker Until He Really Opens It ".
  1. Sheldon Senzon from JMS Media, Inc. , June 30, 2011 at 12:44 p.m.

    Good post, you make a lot of sense. Right now he's on scholarship with no need to dodge bullets. There's a lot of positive "Katie" spin but we're over a year away. Perhaps he's become a little more humble now that the "boy wonder" tag is a distant memory.