Every once in a while, bad economic news hits, but the stock market doesn’t tank because traders saw it coming. That’s the way Hollywood will greet today’s news regarding Jeff Zucker’s departure as head of NBC Universal: While the timing was a bit unexpected — “It’s a complete surprise,” one Peacock exec told Vulture this morning — this is the outcome most people around the town had been expecting for months. That doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of celebrating among Tinseltown types — or among viewers, many of whom have come to equate Zucker, rightly or wrongly, with NBC’s transformation from the home of Must-See TV to the network of Emeril, Good Morning, Miami, the Conan debacle, and Ben Silverman.
“About to board a plane, otherwise I’d throw a party,” one top TV show-runner e-mailed Vulture. “Finally, the world makes sense again, [though] it was much more fun to kick him while he was up.” A top agent quipped that he actually wished Zucker well: “I hope he starts a rival moonshine biz and crushes [former ABC chief] Steve McPherson.” And one top network insider gave this eulogy: “If Jeff decides to play Vegas next, move over David Copperfield! What always seems impressive about Jeff is his agility under fire. No one responds quicker and with more bravado than Jeff. However exciting that may be at times, it’s often a slight of hand that hides the lack of more important leadership qualities — things like thoughtfulness and steadfast belief in guiding ideas or principles. Great act, but I defy anyone to tell me what he really stands for.”
Hollywood’s animus toward Zucker was born long before he ascended to the top spot at the Peacock. After stints running the Today show and NBC Nightly News, Zucker spent the early part of the last decade running NBC’s entertainment division. And it was during that period that he and Hollywood learned to hate each other. Zucker, known for his bluntness and short attention span, had little patience for the Hollywood schmooze game. Producers and agents, meanwhile, felt Zucker had zero respect for what they did, and never tried to learn the way things work. “Hollywood is a tough place. You can’t audit the class,” one network chief told Vulture.
Industry types remain particularly unforgiving over one of Zucker’s most controversial decisions: eliminating comedy from NBC’s Thursday lineup to make room for The Apprentice back in 2004. “He ruined the crown jewel of NBC, must-see Thursday,” one top agent says. “He put a fucking reality show in the middle of it, and bastardized the greatest brand in broadcast TV.”
Insiders say the decision to shift Apprentice to Thursday was typical of Zucker’s biggest flaw as a programmer: short-term thinking. Sure, the Donald greatly boosted ratings on the night — for about a year. But when the show predictably lost steam, and NBC had no good new comedies to immediately fill the gap (owing to years of bad comedy development supervised by Zucker) the Must-See brand had been shattered. The Apprentice move was bold, and it might have boosted profits in the short-term for NBC, but it forever tainted Zucker in Hollywood’s eyes as a man who really didn’t respect the “show” part of the business. Earlier in his run, Zucker spent millions to keep Friends on the air, long after it had peaked creatively, because he didn’t want to lose millions in ad revenue. It made sense in the short-term, but because Zucker didn’t devote nearly as much energy to finding good replacements for Friends, the network’s comedy fortunes took a big tumble when the show finally went off the air.
Then there was Zucker’s call to dump the respected Kevin Reilly (the man who brought us The Office and Friday Night Lights before moving to Fox) for the colorful Ben Silverman (who also helped bring us The Office, but also: Knight Rider and American Gladiators). Silverman is actually a smart guy, but he had zero experience as a programmer or network exec, and Zucker’s decision to bring in someone seen as a salesman was taken as yet another slap to the creative community. Nothing was more insulting, however, than Zucker’s call to eliminate five hours of scripted programming to make room for the 2009 debut of The Jay Leno Show.
Hollywood took it as a direct hit, and a sign that Zucker had given up on them. “They should take down the American flag from in front of the building and put up a white flag,” Peter Tolan, executive producer of Rescue Me, said not long after the move. “It’s like they said, ‘We can’t find traction with anything, so we quit.’” Zucker defended his move by arguing strongly that NBC needed to think outside the box, and that reducing the number of expensive dramas in prime time was an economic must. Like the Apprentice move to Thursday, it worked on one level: Profits briefly went up as NBC spent less on programming. But ratings tanked at ten, affiliates revolted, and NBC’s quest to get out of fourth place was once again slowed because there were fewer opportunities to launch new hits.
Leno-at-ten also ended up derailing Conan O’Brien’s run as host of The Tonight Show. Zucker had actually shown foresight by working out a long-term plan to keep O’Brien at NBC by promising him Tonight more than five years in advance. But the Leno prime-time disaster once again forced Zucker to choose: Keep the host who was younger and had more future potential, or go with the guy more likely to make the network money in the near-term. He chose Leno.
During most of his run atop NBC, Zucker was also known for constantly second-guessing his network troops in Hollywood, overriding creative decisions and managing things minute-to-minute rather than thinking big. Even though he gave execs at successful parts of the company their leeway — like at USA and Bravo — he never felt comfortable letting anyone else really run NBC prime time. “He had the attribute of many great leaders in following his gut, and he had many divisions of a giant company to run, I’m sure to varying degrees of success,” one talent rep notes. “But Hollywood is where art meets commerce, and he was not one to give artists their leeway. You can’t micromange taste. The hits and awards come by running your business soundly while simultaneously making bets on talent and the unknown.”
As for life at NBC post-Zucker, rumors the last few months have indicated new owner Comcast is planning a massive house-cleaning. Former Showtime chief Bob Greenblatt is expected to take charge of prime-time programming at NBC, though nothing’s been announced. There could be changes in the cable divisions of the Peacock, with chiefs Bonnie Hammer (USA and Syfy) and Lauren Zalaznick (Bravo and Oxygen) perhaps duking it out for responsibilities, but viewers won’t likely see much change there: Cable works at NBC U, and Comcast won’t mess with that.
Meanwhile, here’s how Zucker is painting his exit from NBC U, via an e-mail sent to staffers this morning:
Well, the time has come. This time, to tell you a little news about me.
When Comcast assumes control of NBC Universal, I will leave the company.
It has not been an easy or simple decision. I have spent my entire adult life here, more than 24 years. This is the only place I have ever worked. The only professional thing I have ever known. I met my wife here, enjoyed the birth of our four children in that time, worked in almost every division of the company. And forged relationships, both professional and personal, that will last a lifetime.
I remember, vividly, the first day I came to work here in August, 1986. I walked to work at 30 Rockefeller Plaza that day; it was humid and my shirt was soaking by the time I got there. In the years since, I have enjoyed nothing but sheer pleasure in having the names NBC and Universal on my business cards. Sure, there have been ups and downs in the last quarter century. But when I step back, and think about what we’ve been through, I feel nothing but pride and joy. It has been a great run and I’ve been incredibly fortunate.
Now, it is clear to me that this is the right decision for me and for the company. Comcast will be a great new steward, just as GE has been, and they deserve the chance to implement their own vision.
I am proud that they will inherit a company in very good shape, with almost every one of our divisions enjoying their best year ever. The current strength of the company is a tribute to every one of you and the terrific leadership team that is in place.
We’ll talk more about the shape of the company in the months ahead. For now, I just wanted you to know my plans. I won’t be going anywhere until the day the deal closes, and that day is still months away. There is plenty left to do, and we have an obligation to each other to maintain what we have already built. I will continue to approach everything we do with the long-term interest of the company in mind, just as I always have; I know no other way.
I don’t yet know what my future will bring. I’ve spent the last 24 years thinking only about NBC Universal, and never contemplated anything else. I haven’t even begun to think about the next chapter. But I wanted to be honest with you about this news as soon as I could.
I love NBC Universal. And always will. And I am grateful to each of you.
My most heartfelt thanks.