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The Rise and Rise of Jeff Zucker

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Bob Wright, Zucker’s boss, has been CEO of NBC since GE bought the network in 1986, before which he was president of GE Financial Services. He is the very model of a modern major technocrat, maximizing synergies, and slowly, surely consummating the deal to merge with—that is, take over—Universal in 2004. “He’s a genius at making the parts move,” says someone who has worked with him the whole nineteen years, “but as soon as he interferes in programs, it’s a disaster.”

Wright would surely like to be a Grant Tinker—the brilliant, beloved, handsome, silver-haired Connecticut Wasp who was his immediate predecessor at NBC—but instead he’s just a (balding) silver-haired Connecticut guy. He is insecure, people who deal with him say, and he lacks a sure sense of the worlds in which he operates. A few years ago, he accepted an invitation to Vanity Fair’s annual party at Morton’s, the famous industry restaurant in West Hollywood; on the Oscar night in question, he showed up not at Morton’s on Melrose, but 3,000 miles east, at Morton’s steakhouse on 45th and Fifth.

It’s interesting that this low-key, uncharismatic bureaucrat, who was forever overshadowed by the blustery, supremely self-confident Jack Welch, has chosen as his No. 2s Andy Lack (now CEO of Sony BMG Music Entertainment) and then Jeff Zucker, both blustery, supremely self-confident former news executives who have tended to overshadow him. As NBC’s new shows premiered last week and mostly performed well—My Name Is Earl opened huge, especially in “the demo,” as TV people call 18-to-49-year-olds—Wright telephonically high-fived Zucker. “Bob really protects Jeff, and Immelt really likes him,” says someone who knows all three men. “Immelt is great, and patient.”

Zucker does not seem like someone in danger of getting sacked anytime soon. Now that the network is an underdog, he can (paradoxically) afford to give new shows longer to hit their strides and find audiences. Like Seinfeld, My Name Is Earl will both be loved and chattered about by the media class, and be a populist hit—and become what Zucker calls a new “brand-driver” for NBC. In 2006, the network will broadcast the Winter Olympics and start airing NFL games on Sunday nights. Brian Williams is getting respect, Today has pulled ahead again, and if Katie Couric leaves when her contract runs out next spring, her deeply charming understudy Campbell Brown is good to go. MSNBC’s ratings have improved considerably.

Does he want to be CEO? “He wants it, and he thinks he’s been promised it,” says a good friend of Zucker’s.

So the apt and interesting question is probably not whether and when he will be fired, but whether and when he’ll be promoted to CEO of NBC—Indiana Jones not only escapes the fireball and the giant knives, but he gets the girl and saves the day! Wright turns 65 in 2008; unlike Jack Welch, he faces no mandatory retirement. GE’s division heads, however, tend to be youngish. If Today is steadied, and Zucker’s current “news and information redesign project” makes NBC News and MSNBC and CNBC more efficient, and USA and Sci Fi aren’t screwed up, and prime time makes a comeback—and the odds on that are good, if only given the network-TV-casino probabilities—it would be hard to imagine Immelt choosing another successor to Wright. Zucker may not have an M.B.A.’s fluency with analysis and forecasting, but the people who make it to the top at GE are lifers who have shown they’ll do whatever it takes to win. And now, turning around NBC, even if he was partly to blame for its problems, will make him seem like a more plausible chief executive.

Does he want it? When I asked him, it was the only time in an hour he declined to answer. But one of his good friends with no connection to NBC Universal says yes, absolutely. “He wants it, and he thinks he’s been promised it. He’s very tight with Immelt. Immelt is his guy.”

Stylistically, he would be an un-GE choice, but then NBC Universal’s products—journalism, comedy, drama, provocation, spectacle—have always been un-GE businesses. He’s Jewish. He’s short. He’s casual. He lives in New York City, not Fairfield County. And according to a fellow executive, Zucker fails—to his credit—to follow corporate etiquette concerning racy language: He says “fuck” and “shit” in groups, whereas fully Stepfordized GE guys only curse one-on-one.

The former political aide, MSNBC commentator, and West Wing writer Lawrence O’Donnell knows and likes him, even though Zucker gave the series he created (Mister Sterling) a lousy Friday time slot and canceled it after ten episodes. “Jeff is as Irish as you need to be to take over GE,” he says. “I suspect that his stint in entertainment will end up as a paragraph in his final bio. Fifteen years from now, he’s either going to be in Jack Welch’s position or Jon Corzine’s position.”


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