Zucker Unbound

Network television, especially in its decline, is one of the last bastions of serious Kremlinology: It’s just never clear who has the real power. It’s a face-off of myriad sons of bitches trying to preserve an imperiled way of life. Here’s my attempt to decipher the meaning of the pre-Christmas announcement that Jeff Zucker, the boy genius of post-decline TV, would move from the news side at NBC in New York to take over the entertainment side (prime time, late night, soaps, Saturday morning) in L.A.

As background, I’d argue that network television as we know it ended last year. The success of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Survivor means that there is cheaply produced prime-time programming that can effectively compete with expensive sitcoms and dramas. But NBC fell out of this loop. Indeed, it had a lineup of shows this year – The Michael Richards Show, Deadline, and Titans among them – that instantly seemed twenty years out of date, and immediately failed.

Then I’d figure in a last hurrah from Jack Welch, who will (in theory) be retiring from GE, NBC’s parent, in a year. The basic philosophy of the Jack Welch school of management holds that all you need to solve an intractable problem is the right guy to solve it (and that Jack Welch’s superior talent is in always knowing the right guy).

Add to this the 40-year cold war in the television business between Hollywood and New York – New York wants profits; Hollywood wants hits (and often those two grails are mutually antagonistic).

Keep in mind the incredible weight of the Zucker legend. When they were in their twenties, his Harvard classmate Michael Hirschorn, now the chairman of Inside.com, wrote a memoir in Esquire of the great Zucker: “The recipient of a salary that by some estimates soars well into the six figures, and with firing and promoting power over legions of ego-crazed, blow-dried, overpaid network correspondents, he looms as a living infomercial for what pure will to power will score you in the modern world.” Not only is Zucker, the executive producer of the Today show, at 35 indisputably the most successful man in television, but he is possibly the only successful man in television – there is nothing anywhere in television that has the value of Today. Then there is, as they put it at NBC, “the cancer.” Colon cancer first struck him at 31, and again a year ago. Television is a superstitious and sentimental business. NBC’s last hero was Brandon Tartikoff, who became the head of NBC Entertainment at 31 when he was in remission from cancer, too (and who died at 48).

And then there is the reversal of a defining trend – after all these years, and all the ensuing caviling, of having entertainment influence and undermine news, now a news guy is being sent to run entertainment. In a speeded up, event-geared, cable-television, infotainment (emphasis on info) age, this might not be so unintuitive.

The flipping of the networks in the eighties and nineties has, of course, been a pretty bad deal for whoever ended up with one. Except now there might be a chance of coming up with a profitable formula. But in order to take advantage of this new formula, you have to dismantle one of your largest divisions (a.k.a. Hollywood). While putting the screws to a nonperforming division is exactly what Welch has become practically sainted for, that hasn’t translated on the West Coast, where they just ignore outsiders.

Hollywood people, like most people, cannot conceive of an America without sitcoms and hour dramas.

Truly, you can’t get more New York, or non-Hollywood, or, actually, Connecticut, than Welch. What’s more, the second-most-unlikely man in Hollywood is his protégé, NBC head Bob Wright. It’s not just that they’re both startlingly non-Jewish in the most parochial industry in America, but that Hollywood may be the industry most resistant to Welch’s management logic and discipline.

At their recent meeting, though, when Welch and Wright and NBC West Coast president Scott Sassa sat down to look at the failure of the entire fall schedule, I’ll just bet Neutron Jack said “Fuck it” – if Hollywood wouldn’t play his game, then he’d Zuckerize them.

Other than risking Today itself – nothing less than the entire profit engine of the network – sending Zucker in seems like a no-brainer.

You can’t seem more Hollywood, in that special, animalistic sort of way, than Zucker: top-breed Hollywood.

He is small enough to have a complex about it. He has mad-dog eyes. What hair he has (not much) is cut Marinelike or, really, Village People­like. He’s Jewish, of course. Though he’s preternaturally young, his unmediated aggressiveness has tempered any bit of boyishness (but he tells you often he’s 35). Such aggressiveness, cornered-animal aggressiveness, has wiped away any sort of Harvard effeteness or polish he might have had once upon a time (which is possibly why he is always reminding you he went to Harvard). There are a hundred purebred best-in-show Hollywood guys he looks like. He looks like Scott Rudin, among the more notable Hollywood assholes of the moment; indeed, he looks like Barry Diller when Diller was 35, possibly the most famous Hollywood asshole of all time. His aggressiveness is combined with an absolute pitiless quality: People are terrified of his impatience, spooked by the way he finishes their sentences, desperate to keep his attention (which wanders quickly). He has, in other words, Hollywood street cred – he can make anyone cry. He may even have trumped his Hollywood counterparts as the prototype of modern, asshole ambition. It is an obsessive-compulsive, approval-driven, father-dominated, fear-of-death thing, this absolute need to accomplish combined with the uncompromising willingness to work (and, in Zucker’s case, without benefit of substance abuse).

But here are the differences:

Zucker has grown up within GE’s NBC and, next to only Wright, is the NBC guy most GE true-blue (not to mention one of GE’s most profitable executives).

He, unlike virtually anyone else in the entertainment industry, is a profitable guy. The Today show may make as much as $500 million a year for the network. It takes 50 percent of the morning audience, and 70 to 80 percent of the morning advertising dollars. There may not be anybody in Hollywood who generates more money.

And he does live stuff. Live is the opposite of what Hollywood does. You could argue that all of what Hollywood does is designed not to be live. That the vast expense it incurs for everything it does is to get as far as possible from being live. Scripting, rehearsing, rewriting, reshooting, remixing is the core Hollywood skill set. In that respect, it’s Zucker who is the real (and old-fashioned) showman. Pulling any stunt that will get any kind of attention. Bagging anybody who’s anybody on any given morning for a live appearance. It’s a scoop mentality. He’s got the rhythm thing. It’s a real king-of-the-world compulsion. Indeed, the first twenty minutes of Today may be the most important and influential media moments in the whole news business. (More important than the New York Times front page.)

Then there’s the sickness-and-death shadow. Nobody, but nobody, talks about sickness and death in Hollywood. They lie, they hide, they resist, they check into clinics under assumed names. They are all deeply afraid. I’ll bet the cancer gives Zucker some weird power in Hollywood.

And then, quite surprising to me, there’s the loyalty thing. Although Zucker has a mostly terrible reputation in the general media (possibly because he competes with all other media organizations – Today has become, arguably, the most powerful news organization) as a screamer, and a nasty shit, and an arrogant so-and-so, I have not been able to find anyone who works for him who wouldn’t, apparently, get down in front of a truck on his behalf. (Who in Hollywood can say that?)

After deep negotiations with network P.R. people, I went up to see Zucker the other day at 30 Rock on the famous third floor, where NBC has been working virtually forever, and where Zucker has worked his whole career (he’s now surrounded by moving boxes with all his stuff), and where he was on the phone talking sweet nothings to his wife and young son (tough guys always make a point of doing this) when I arrived.

My first question was about moving to L.A. – the beach? Beverly Hills? – and he clearly waffled. I couldn’t pin him down. It occurred to me that maybe he isn’t moving; maybe that’s the ploy. The way you deal with Hollywood is not to go there.

You can’t tell. This guy is tight. Every word is calibrated. Any dig, any interesting perspective, he puts surgically off the record. He is as aware of the interview as anyone I’ve ever interviewed.

“Why are you still in the television business?” I ask, trying, a bit, to goad him. “Dwindling market share, cutthroat competition, rising costs, technological obsolescence. Sheeesh. I mean, you could do anything. You could go raise a couple of hundred million dollars – a billion – and do something fun.”

“Well, I’ve had cancer twice,” he says, as though a little defensive about not being more of a go-getter. “I guess I’m a lifer,” he says, shrugging. “I actually like working for a big company. Really. I love NBC.”

“It’s so old-fashioned,” I say, meaning almost charming.

“I don’t know if I’m old enough,” he says, stressing what for him is obviously an important technicality, “to be old-fashioned.”

“So, okay,” I say, going in for the kill, “what do you do – you must have given this a lot of thought – what’s network television like, how does your world change, when the prime-time audience finally bottoms out at about a 20 percent market share?”

He looks sour. Then he says, a bit defensively, that network television will still have the most mass-market audience available to mass marketers. But he doesn’t fight the number.

He knows what I mean: If you’ve lost half of your audience and are looking at losing as much as two thirds, but it’s costing you even more to produce a show than it cost when you had a 90 percent market share … He brings up the ER thing – with success like that, you start to have new admiration for failure.

My question was, in fact, a trick question, because I don’t know of any other network head who ever admitted to audience shrinkage on that scale. As it happens, that number, that 20 percent of the television audience, which will mean that almost everyone now working in prime time will be put out of business, is not too far off the size of the morning audience.

I can’t read his reaction when I offer what seems to me an obvious notion: “What about turning prime time into a Today format? Three hours live every night, on the news, economical to produce, and you could stay in New York.”

No one in the motion-picture community, of course, reasonably believes that such a transformation is truly in store. For one thing, there is a pervasive confidence that anybody who comes to Hollywood is either fleeced and bankrupted or else turned by the pleasures – the weather, the sex, the stars, the cars. Then, too, perhaps more important, Hollywood people, like most people, cannot conceive of an America without sitcoms and hour dramas.

But you know something like this just has to be going through Zucker’s mind. Take prime time live. Remake television. Become the most important man in America. Make Jack Welch proud.

Zucker Unbound