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NBC News Chief Defends Jeff Zucker

by Joel Keller, posted Feb 3rd 2010 8:08PM
Steve Capus, president of NBC NewsIt's no secret that Jeff Zucker is the most hated man in broadcasting. That is, if you don't work for NBC or GE. While Zucker has spent his time overseeing NBC and NBC Universal tinkering and experimenting the broadcast network into a fourth-place laughingstock, there is a reason why he continues to remain at the company and get more and more responsibility: the man makes GE money.

While the NBC broadcast network hemorrhages cash, NBCU's cable consortium makes money in buckets. Even in the NBC microcosm, NBC News is making money with 'Today' and the 'NBC Nightly News' while the entertainment and sports divisions aren't doing well. Which is why it's not surprising that news president Steve Capus defended his boss to Jon Friedman of Marketwatch.com.

Calling critics' attacks on Zucker over the Second Late Night War "unfair" and "oversimplistic," he praised Zucker for taking a chance with the Leno at 10 experiment, and gave him all the credit for his division's -- and the rest of NBCU's -- success:

"If you're going to ding him with late-night issues, then give him at least a smidgen of credit for what (else) has happened around here," he told Friedman.

Talk to others at NBC, and they'll likely tell you the same thing, even off the record. There's a lot of loyalty to Zucker in the halls of 30 Rock, and even some on the west coast, because of what he's been able to do in every part of NBCU's TV side... except NBC itself.

And that's where the argument breaks down. NBC may only account for a small percentage of NBCU's revenues, but it's watched by the most people. If USA, one of the most-watched cable channels and an NBCU staple, was consistently getting the ratings that got 'The Jay Leno Show' cancelled, they'd be ecstatic. So any failures by Zucker on NBC proper are looked at with a much bigger magnifying glass.

Zucker's decade-long tone-deafness when it comes to what makes for a successful broadcast network have just made him look foolish and GE even more foolish for hiring him, even if in reality he's done well for the company. Perception can become reality, especially in the entertainment business, and if people in the right places are perceiving that Zucker is "failing upward," then it'll be accepted as fact.

However, the loyalty he engenders will work in his favor when Comcast takes over later this year. And all he needs is one good development season to turn NBC -- and his image -- around. It's not unfathomable to think a longtime doormat can turn it around: If the Tampa Bay Rays can play in a World Series and the New Orleans Saints can reach the Super Bowl, anything can happen.

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For all the "profit" that Zucker supposedly brought in with the Jay Leno show, he lost that much, if not more, in goodwill with the viewership and the local affiliates--so much that it looks like the Comcast/NBCUniversal discussion in Washington will turn into a NBC Affiliate Convention by default.

Plus, did anyone factor in the payouts that were made to Conan in these "profits"? I wouldn't think that Leno's show made that much money that it could still remain profitable after throwing away $30-40million...

February 04 2010 at 9:04 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Allison Solow

At some point, somebody has to say that the emperor has no clothes. It's time to turn the page on the Jeff Zucker era. Call it a day. Give someone else a chance to bring NBC back because it's not going to happen as long as Zucker is calling the shots. Les Moonves is laughing his ass off about the NBC debacle, and Kevin Reilly is probably pretty happy to be out of 30 Rock and working for Fox.

The last time NBC was so low it took The Cosby Show to begin a reversal. Would NBC even recognize a Cosby Show if it fell into their laps today?

February 03 2010 at 11:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This is why I've long said GE has no business owning NBC. You can't run NBC like you run GE. You can't run a business solely on the bottom line and short term returns. You have to think about the long term. They've given up daytime programming. They gave up 10pm programming. They gave up scripted programming in favor of lower cost news/reality/game shows. And they wonder why they have less and less viewers every year. They're not building any audience loyalty.

Ok, so NBC has a successful cable business, but hello-- so does everyone else, ABC, CBS, and Fox. And if I'm not mistaken, some of those successful NBC cable businesses are joint ventures.

I think the first order of business when Comcast acquires NBC is to clean house and get rid of all the people that put you in this position.

February 03 2010 at 10:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to nick's comment
BC McKinney

But GE, and before them RCA, and before them GE, owned NBC for decades, and was basically content with their performance. The problems didn't seem to start until Zucker took over, and really, after the merger with Vivendi Universal, another entertainment conglomerate that was already troubled.

February 03 2010 at 11:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Comcast has to get NBC first. The Senate approval hearings are tomorrow, and according to the LA Times, the NBC affiliate stations will be airing their concerns regarding the deal.

The primary concern is that whatever shreds of worthwhile programming are left will be shuffled from the affiliates to NBCUniCom cable channels. This idea isn't completely farfetched, given that Comcast supposedly touted their potential ability to air NBC branded sporting events on their cable sport channels as part of their proposal to the FCC.

So while the prospects are good, it's still not a done deal.

(Not that I'm a Comcast fan, but at least they're in broadcasting, unlike GE.)

February 04 2010 at 4:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
BC McKinney

If you're looking at strictly NBC/U's business, he's arguably correct. The "Leno experiment" wasn't a failure; just as predicted, their costs were lowered and they were making a profit even with lower ratings. The problem they didn't foresee was that broadcast networks depend on affiliate stations for product distribution, and low ratings at 10 hurt the affiliates' other business enough to make them consider ceasing to distribute the network's programming.

The fiasco over how to rectify the problem, however, seems to be mostly the fault of NBC/U's hamfisted, tone-deaf management, principally Zucker.

February 03 2010 at 8:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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