The Rise and Rise of Jeff Zucker

Ilustration by David Wong

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.

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.”

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.”

Senator Zucker? Governor Zucker? The prospect seems to excite him much more than becoming CEO of GE. And like I said—like Zucker says—his ambition is gargantuan and unembarrassed. Although he’s also a realist. He would probably run for Congress first, once he figures out exactly how that’s done.

Kurt Andersen worked as a consultant to USA/Universal Television for the three years before its acquisition by NBC.

The Rise and Rise of Jeff Zucker