Zucker's Fixation on Future Distracted Him From Present

From 'Today' Show Triumphs to Leno-Conan Debacle, NBC Chief Is Nothing if Not a Risk-Taker

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Almost from the moment Jeff Zucker arrived at NBC 24 years ago, he never stopped testing new ideas. In 2001, he extended "Friends," "Will & Grace" and "Just Shoot Me" to 40 minutes from half an hour in an effort to keep people from watching CBS's "Survivor" on Thursday nights. At the time, he said the shift "may open up some possibilities for different thinking in the future," hinting at similar disruptive moves down the road.

Zucker timeline

Zucker timeline

And that there were -- some successful and others so completely wrongheaded that the Peacock network at times became the butt of jokes both inside and outside NBC Universal. Witness the public sport made by its own late-night hosts during the Leno/Conan debacle.

But in retrospect, the NBC Universal CEO's biggest failing might also have been his biggest asset: He is a visionary. Like a mad scientist, he planned so far ahead that he didn't see the villagers protesting right in front of him. In short, he was maneuvering for the future at the expense of his flagship broadcast network's present.

Mr. Zucker preached to the media and investors about the need to keep programming costs under control as digital dimes replaced analog ad dollars; about new ways to hold viewers while technology kept luring them in new directions; and about the benefits of the cable model, where advertising revenue is supplemented by fees from cable and satellite providers.

But his preaching often made advertisers, affiliates and producers think he was biting the hand that fed him, that he didn't particularly care for the medium that was generating much of the buzz for his company. The name on the door was NBC Universal, after all, not Syfy Universal.

Some of his ideas were worthy. It's true, for example, that cable has proven more durable and attractive in recent times. If ABC and CBS had more cable in their portfolios, they might be better able to amortize the costs of their news divisions. NBC Universal also teamed with News Corp. to create Hulu, establishing a viable, ad-supported online-video model. And NBC Universal has cleverly packaged its media assets in ways that let advertisers buy packages tailored to reach women, for example, or the environmentally conscious or people focused on health.

But Mr. Zucker sometimes seemed to let the business of today drift. It's one thing to cast aspersions on broadcast TV, which faces abundant challenges as technology siphons away the massive audiences that made that venue so attractive to advertisers and lucrative for its owners. It's quite another thing to talk down broadcast while hunting ad dollars for a broadcast operation whose ratings are falling below the competition. Ad buyers for years have privately marveled at how Mr. Zucker kept his job, given some of NBC's flubs.

And there have been some big flubs. Under Mr. Zucker, NBC never really developed a pipeline of emerging programs that could grow and prosper while "Frasier" and "Friends" were still on the air. That soon left NBC playing defense as Fox raised the quality of its lineup and as CBS hammered home a spate of staid but durable hits.

And Mr. Zucker may never shake off the fallout from engineering one of TV's great debacles—putting a Jay Leno talk show on in prime time.

NBC had prepared an orderly transition for its "Tonight" franchise, agreeing years earlier to move Conan O' Brien into the slot as Jay Leno departed. But NBC regretted its commitment as the scheduled handover approached. Mr. Leno was still popular and could have set up shop elsewhere, potentially further dividing the late-night pie NBC had long dominated.

To counter this possible move and simultaneously keep costs down at NBC, Mr. Zucker gave him a daily weeknight berth at 10 p.m., eliminating the millions of dollars in costs for the scripted dramas that might normally run at that time. The move backfired: Mr. Leno's prime- time ratings sagged, providing a weak lead-in for local affiliates' crucial late news. When NBC tried to move Mr. Leno back to his usual roost, it was Mr. O' Brien who bolted and arranged to set up shop somewhere else, potentially further dividing the late-night pie NBC had long dominated.

Give Mr. Zucker this: He never let the TV industry's longstanding business practices keep him from trying something new or even something eyebrow-raising.

Sure, some of NBC Universal's maneuvers seemed as if they were cobbled together with spit and Silly Putty, and no question, several of them proved wildly out of sync with the way advertisers and consumers continue to regard TV. Even so, the world is changing. TV viewers are becoming DVR viewers, cable viewers, iPod viewers. Many other broadcast executives are trying to stand pat. The question is whether they are fiddling while their villages burn.

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