Jeff Zucker has made a very fast climb almost to the very top of television’s very greasy pole. Five years ago, he was just a producer—a famously smart, focused, cocksure TV-news Barnum who had recast, remade, and revived Today, yes, but still just a news producer, and at 35 no longer quite so precocious. Then his GE bosses named him NBC’s chief entertainment programmer—an out-of-left-field appointment that seemed to make sense mainly as an expression of GE’s essential contempt for Hollywood and an acknowledgment (or propitiation) of Zucker’s volcanic ambition. Three years later, he was promoted to the presidency of the network.
But now he’s a 40-year-old wunderkind without any recent wunders to his credit, apart from his own ascension. In fact, one could argue, he has barely managed, like a corporate Indiana Jones, to outrun the implosions (Today!) and collapses (NBC Entertainment!) that have taken place right behind and beneath him. His replacement as head of entertainment, Kevin Reilly, took over a year and a half ago, just as Friends and Frasier went off the air, thus making the prime-time void someone else’s awful, do-or-die problem to fix. (According to Jack Welch himself, the second of the five stages GE inevitably goes through in response to a crisis is “containment,” which means you “try to make the problem disappear by giving it to someone else to solve.”)
Last year, NBC’s prime-time audience shrank by 11 percent, sending it from No. 1 to No. 4 in the season ratings, a more extreme reversal of fortune than had ever befallen any network—at the same time that (not coincidentally) Today’s lead over Good Morning America shriveled. The punch line to the annus horribilis came in May, when NBC’s “upfront” revenues—from the advance sales of ads for the season starting now—plummeted: The company had budgeted a drop of several hundred million dollars, but the loss turned out to be twice that.
And so in many quarters of West L.A. and Manhattan—and not just among the relatives and employees of CBS chairman Les Moonves—considerable pleasure has been taken in NBC’s and Zucker’s problems. “The big mystery that has networks, producers, and agents buzzing,” the trade paper Broadcasting & Cable gleefully declared several weeks ago, “is: Will NBC’s Jeff Zucker and Kevin Reilly keep their jobs?”
For most of two decades, from Cheers and The Cosby Show through Seinfeld and ER and Frasier and Friends and The West Wing, NBC not only had a Yankees-like string of championship seasons, but managed it by broadcasting most of the best shows on TV. That bred a culture of hubris and complacency inside the network, and resentment on the outside. Jeff Zucker is the very embodiment of highly torqued self-confidence, even arrogance—a self-fulfilling M.O. when the luck was flowing his way, an invitation to Schadenfreude when the luck turns. During an hour-long off-the-record conversation I had with him last week, his shrugging, suck-it-up shorthand take on all his bad buzz was the same: I get that, I get that.
But he is not one of those entertainment executives whose own underlings are happy to see undergo public torture. All the current and most of the former NBC colleagues to whom I spoke respect and (sometimes a little grudgingly) like him. Even the NBC Universal executive who told me that “no other source of illumination is allowed to shine” stipulated that “he’s a really good boss.” He tends to deal with employees in quick, terse, all-lowercase e-mails, and gives praise regularly.
However, building Hollywood relationships—that is, “relationships”—has not been Zucker’s strong suit. When he was head of NBC Entertainment, writer-producers often found him antsy and abrupt, unwilling to disguise his impatience and boredom by means of the standard SoCal happy-talk schmooze—that is, the very opposite of show-business lifers like Moonves. More fundamentally, says one producer, “there’s definitely a resentment of Jeff in Hollywood. Because he came from another business and parachuted in at the highest level.” Nor was he a deferential new boy. He made public cracks about Moonves’s tan and HBO’s niche strategy. Two years ago, he said that Kingpin, his short-lived dud of a gangster series, was not a ripoff of The Sopranos but, rather, that it was Shakespearean.
The highfalutin flavor of that bit of one-upmanship, however, was atypical. If he weren’t in the business, he wouldn’t watch any broadcast-TV shows apart from sports and news. Yet unlike other media executives with fancy educations, Zucker (Harvard ’86) carries no whiff of the Ivy League. He seems uninterested in creative quality or innovation for its own sake, and absolutely without embarrassment concerning Fear Factor and Donald Trump and their equivalents on his air. Succès d’estime is not success to Jeff Zucker. He must win.