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The Rise and Rise of Jeff Zucker

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The questions now are whether NBC’s unhappy situation is his fault and how much time his bosses, NBC chairman Bob Wright and GE CEO Jeff Immelt, will give him to fix it.

As producer of Today, Zucker was in control of his own destiny: His intelligence and relentlessness and particular choices—about on-air talent, staff, stories, sets, pacing, promotion, stunts, all of it—made him successful. But that attention to detail simply wasn’t possible in his subsequent positions.

Because he’s “very hands-on when it comes to the shows,” Broadcasting & Cable said, he’s “tied tightly to their failures and successes.” When his job was running entertainment, he phoned writer-producers to give notes on scripts, sometimes before production-studio executives or his own underlings had called. As president of the network, earlier this year he overruled CNBC executives to let Jim Cramer create his new show, Mad Money, and popped into the Today control room to offer production advice. Yet when I first called his PR person for this story, before I asked a question she said the following: “He’s not a hands-on executive . . . Jeff doesn’t read scripts and hasn’t for the last two seasons.” And as for having rejected Desperate Housewives (a rumor I didn’t know and hadn’t mentioned), she added, “Jeff never saw that script. The development team here passed on it.” What’s more, she added, if NBC prime time has been tanking, well, “prime time and the broadcast network are now a small part of his job. Entertainment Cable”—primarily the successful USA and Sci Fi channels, which he took over last year—“is the largest part of Jeff’s TV Group portfolio.” Whatever. The fact remains that during his five-year tenure as the guy in charge, NBC, unlike all the other major networks, has launched not a single scripted series that’s become a huge hit—no CSI, no Desperate Housewives.

But Zucker doesn’t deserve most of the blame for NBC’s present misfortunes, any more than a U.S. president deserves most of the blame when the economy goes south. It’s impossible to run seven nights of prime time or a whole TV network (let alone half-a-dozen, as Zucker does) with the all-controlling auteurist focus of a show producer. In the zillion-channel universe, being a TV executive is like playing a frantic game of musical chairs—extreme musical chairs, where the music stops and chairs are taken away more often but new players keep coming in to fight for the remaining seats. Just one big hit can now transform an also-ran network into a winner. Managing a network these days is more like gambling than business, more like truffle-hunting than agriculture, a matter of luck. “Most hits are flukes,” Zucker has said, and truly believes. And even hits—such as The West Wing and Will & Grace—lose steam. He’s unable to control his sprawling kingdom the way he did his Today fiefdom or even NBC Entertainment—which makes this more powerful job less fun for him. But if you’re hardwired never to doubt your own superiority, as Zucker is, the impossibility of beating the house immunizes you from self- blame when you lose. So for him, the game is almost win-win.

Flukes and surprises and inconsistencies—all intrinsic to the entertainment business—are dangerous anti-matter in the General Electric universe. Jeff Immelt says he wants his managers to be more creative and take more risks, but “GE decision-making,” one executive at NBC Universal told me, “is defensive and numbers-driven—it’s at odds with a risk-taking creative culture.” Of course, Zucker, who arrived at NBC at the very moment GE bought it, knows no other way.

GE’s cultish management philosophy—the so-called Six Sigma system—seems ill-suited to advertising-supported television. Six Sigma is all about reducing defective products to the absolute minimum. Great! But for TV shows, even defining “defects per million opportunities” (the Six Sigma term of art) is an absurd exercise. Moreover, Six Sigma defects are defined by one’s dissatisfied customers, but NBC and all advertising-supported media have two very different sets of customers, the advertisers and the audience. Digital recorders like TiVo, by empowering viewers to ditch the advertisers, make that contradiction all the more acute. And in a fractured culture of niches, the big old-fashioned broadcast networks, whose business models require huge audiences, find it harder than ever to define a single set of viewer-customers: I think NBC’s My Name Is Earl may be the funniest new network sitcom in a decade, but plenty of people will consider it coarse, ugly, unkind—defective.

And GE is especially unsentimental about the short-term bottom line. Because NBC prime time will earn several hundred million dollars less than expected this year, a compensating several hundred million is being cut right now not just from NBC’s spending but from all its siblings in the TV Group and at Universal Pictures. I spoke to an executive at one of the cable channels who’s worried that the budget reductions may starve them at a crucial moment. “What’s about to go wrong isn’t Zucker’s fault,” says the executive. “It’s GE’s fault.”


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