Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Jeff Zucker Has Endured Cancer, Hollywood, and Being TV’s Wunderkind. So Why Not Take on CNN?

But Zucker’s challenge in positioning the new series highlights the risks inherent to this programming strategy. On Fox News, viewers who watch Bill O’Reilly are probably going to enjoy watching Megyn Kelly and Sean Hannity. On ¬MSNBC, it’s the same, only with liberals (and a much smaller audience). With Zucker’s shows, there’s no obvious through-line that connects Bourdain to Walsh to Ling to Rowe and Morgan Spurlock, except they’re a lot like what’s already available on other cable outlets. “It’s definitely not the model CNN is used to,” Entelis said.

Maybe Jeff Zucker’s career is an object lesson in the dangers of peaking too early. Or the hubris of leaving a winning team. Or maybe it just goes to show that it’s hard to capture lightning in a bottle once — let alone twice — in television. Nevertheless, he is dogged by the question of whether he can achieve something like his early success again. “Is Jeff a one-hit wonder?” a former NBC executive asked. “It’s the -sophomore-album problem.”

To be fair, television has changed quite a bit since Zucker arrived at NBC as a researcher for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. “He definitely had a lot more hair than he has now, but the curiosity was incredible,” NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol recalled. When the Olympics ended, the anchor Jane Pauley recommended Zucker for a field-producer position on Today, where he was assigned to an ambitious young correspondent named Katie Couric. “At first, I was really put off,” Couric told me. “I was like, Who is this guy wearing girls’ tennis shoes and gray sweatshirts and he had no idea what he’s doing?” But Zucker quickly won her over. “He was this little ball of energy,” she said. “Edward R. Murrow and P. T. Barnum—a real showman.” Two years later, Couric landed in the anchor chair and Zucker leaped over more seasoned rivals, including his friend Phil Griffin, now ¬MSNBC’s president, to become the show’s executive producer.

Broadcast news had been shaped, to that point, by legendary ABC executive Roone Arledge, who transformed Peter Jennings and Diane Sawyer into American royalty. Couric and Zucker incubated a new, more democratic style. Her girl-next-door accessibility and public struggles — in 1998, her husband Jay Monahan died of colon cancer at 42 — helped her connect with members of an audience who wanted to feel like they knew the celebrities they woke up to.

“It was a very magical aligning of the stars,” Zucker told me. “Between Bryant, Katie, and Matt, you had the three best people who did morning television. I don’t want to speak about myself because you sound like an asshole. But I think it was a strong combination that got the best out of each of us.”

Zucker’s Today became known for its entertainment stunts — “Where in the World Is Matt Lauer?,” “Today Throws a Wedding” — but he also tried to maintain the show’s journalistic credibility by moving commercials out of the opening half-hour and devoting it to hard news. And Today is where he began to develop his theory of blowing out coverage of hot-button stories, like the O. J. Simpson trial.

When, in the fall of 2000, NBC offered Zucker a job running the entertainment unit in Los Angeles, both his wife and Ebersol counseled him against making the move. “He was such a live animal,” Ebersol said. He thought Zucker would be frustrated by the pace of Hollywood and the lack of control he’d be able to exert over any given project. But Zucker told Ebersol he wanted the challenge. He convinced his wife that she and the kids could remain in New York and he would commute weekly.

Zucker’s ego, and his refusal to move full time to the West Coast, quickly created enemies in Hollywood. It didn’t help that he failed to produce generationally defining hits for NBC like The West Wing, ER, Cheers, and Seinfeld. Zucker’s contributions to America’s cultural diet were much more along the lines of his Today stunts: Donald Trump and Fear Factor. “They were able to pile on him because he didn’t back it up with hit shows,” said Marc Graboff, then an NBC executive vice-president. When Zucker went to Hollywood, NBC was No. 1 in prime time. Four years later, it was in last place.

Still, he kept getting promoted. Zucker had forged a close relationship with G.E.’s new CEO, Jeff Immelt. In 2007, Immelt named him CEO of NBC Universal. That fall, Zucker moved into a mogul-class apartment, buying the 11-room co-op on Madison Avenue that had belonged to the late actress Kitty Carlisle Hart.

Zucker was successful in a lot of arenas: NBC’s cable assets, which included USA, Bravo, CNBC, and MSNBC, thrived, and NBC News remained No. 1. But the problems at NBC Entertainment deepened. Though shows like 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation received critical acclaim, they were still not pulling in large audiences. Zucker had turned the unit over to Ben Silverman, whose production company produced The Office and The Biggest Loser, but the move blew up over Silverman’s erratic management style. In 2009, Zucker fired Silverman. “When I hired Ben, every CEO in Hollywood called to say what a brilliant move it was,” said Zucker. “Bob Iger, Leslie Moonves, Peter Chernin. They all thought it was brilliant. Turns out it wasn’t.” Silverman, for his part, blames his former boss for the difficulties. “He didn’t care about Hollywood, and they certainly didn’t care back,” Silverman told me. “I was dealing with a boss who everyone hated. It was just bullshit.”