NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In a move that many media-watchers considered inevitable, NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker today said he would leave the glitzy media concern he has worked at for more than 24 years once cable giant Comcast finalizes its deal to take a majority interest in the company, likely by the end of this year. Mr. Zucker's admission that he will depart is the first tangible signal of Comcast's plans for its broad assortment of TV assets.
"When Comcast assumes control of NBC Universal, I will leave the company," Mr. Zucker said in a memo to staff Friday.
In doing so, Mr. Zucker paves the way for a company with more enthusiasm for the extremely difficult task of managing a broadcast network than he may have had in the end. In recent years, NBC and its broadcast brethren have run into any number of game-changing technological developments that siphon off portions of the mass audiences for which advertisers pay such huge premiums.
Mr. Zucker, perhaps sensing the trend before many others, has worked to bolster NBC Universal's strength in cable TV, where advertising revenue is supplemented by fees that cable providers and satellite companies pay to carry channels. Under his aegis, NBCU has placed more emphasis on its broad portfolio of cable channels, which include USA, SyFy, MSNBC, CNBC and Bravo. The company has also found new ways to monetize its sports and news operations -- smart moves given the growing challenge of maintaining news staffs and paying the rising rights fees demanded by sports leagues.
But Mr. Zucker for years also displayed, if not an antipathy for flagship property NBC, a decided lack of interest in maintaining it. While he was head of NBC's entertainment unit, he failed to replace programs like "Frasier" and "Friends" with new hits. As CEO of NBC Universal, he argued for several years that the broadcast business was in decline and that it required radical maneuvers to avoid woes similar to those confronting newspapers.
Some of his solutions came in distinct contrast to established practices. Under Mr. Zucker, NBC began to add more reality-based fare to its prime-time schedule, a contrast to its reputation for high-quality programming such as "Hill Street Blues" and "ER," which attracted relatively affluent audiences. The network tinkered with scaling back its presence during the upfront, the annual late-spring market during which advertisers place commitments for the next fall season. Mr. Zucker talked about the need for keeping costs low when so many of the new shows launched by the industry ultimately fail. And, most memorably, he decided to move late-night host Jay Leno into a five-nights-a-week talk show that aired at 10 p.m., a move that didn't catch on with viewers and drove down the ad prices NBC could command.
That last decision continues to have ramifications. When Mr. Zucker and NBC restored Mr. Leno to his roost hosting the venerable "Tonight Show," they forced out the replacement, Conan O' Brien. Mr. O' Brien is set to debut in a new late-night show in November that will air on Time Warner's TBS -- partially opposite Mr. Leno.
Meanwhile, Comcast executives have been talking a different game about broadcast TV than Mr. Zucker did. "The network, the broadcast station, and then TV production -- when you look at those three as kind of an ecosystem, it's a good business," Steven Burke, Comcast's chief operating officer and the executive who will oversee NBC Universal once Comcast acquires it, said in front of investors late last year. "It clearly is not a business that is without its challenges, but it's a good business,"
In an interview with The New York Times, Mr. Zucker said he had met with Mr. Burke and decided it was time for him to move on. Comcast suggested NBC Universal's assets were more important to them than the man who had supervised them for the last several years. "Jeff Zucker has devoted his entire professional life to NBC, and he has led the company with integrity and purpose," Brian L. Roberts, chairman-CEO, Comcast Corp., said in a prepared statement. "The success of NBC Universal puts us in a wonderful position as we plan for our joint venture with GE."
Speculation has already begun to rise over whether other senior executives at NBC Universal will leave as the company comes under Comcast's control. The transaction has long expected to be completed by the end of 2010. Among NBC Universal's senior staffers are Jeff Gaspin, chairman-NBC Universal Television Entertainment; Lynn Calpeter, exec VP-chief financial officer; Ron Meyer, president-chief operating officer, Universal Studios; Dick Ebersol, chairman-NBC Universal Sports and Olympics; and Steve Capus, president-NBC News. An NBC Universal spokeswoman declined to respond to a query about whether other executives at the company might move or leave as the Comcast transaction finalized.