Editorial: Blame for NBC lies with Zucker

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Jeff Zucker, president of the NBC Universal Television Group, managed the unprecedented: He took NBC from first to fourth. Mr. Zucker is network TV's biggest loser, and he's running out of time.

General Electric, NBC's owner, is not in the business of operating also-rans. It's not an issue GE has had to worry much about at NBC. When GE struck a deal to buy NBC parent RCA in late 1985, the network was in the midst of a remarkable comeback, scoring the top program ("The Cosby Show") and top ratings for the first time since 1970. NBC has had the No. 1 show and overall prime-time ratings in 10 of the 20 seasons since then. For the 10 years before this past season, NBC had three or more top-10 shows.

Then the debacle. Last season, NBC slumped to fourth in prime 18-49 ratings. Number of shows in the top 10 overall ratings: zero. One of NBC's few proclaimed "strong new launches": a reality show called "The Biggest Loser."

Mr. Zucker, 40, took charge of NBC Entertainment in 2000 and now oversees all non-sports TV programs for NBC Universal. His official bio says: "Under Zucker's leadership, NBC has been the top-rated network among the key adults 18-49 demographic for four consecutive seasons."

Update: Under his leadership, NBC prime time imploded. He failed to take decisive action this fall to address NBC's troubled Thursday-night franchise. Buyers are underwhelmed by the fall schedule. NBC's upfront take tanked.

NBC still rakes in the cash, and Mr. Zucker notes it's become far less reliant on prime time. That day part generated more than half of NBC's profit in 1990 and 25% in 2000. NBC Universal-broadcast, cable, studio, theme parks-this year expects just 13% of profits from NBC prime time. NBC Universal forecasts its income to grow more than 25% to about $3.3 billion this year-more than NBC's revenue when GE bought the network. Financially, NBC Universal is delivering.

But Mr. Zucker is not delivering on programming. Maybe he's got too much on his plate. Maybe he's in the wrong job. He took credit when NBC was at the top. He then squandered his inheritance and now must take the blame.

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