NBC chief says he was shown door

Zucker will step down af­ter be­ing told he won’t be needed af­ter merger with Com­cast.

Los Angeles Times - - Business - Meg James

Jeff Zucker, a life­long em­ployee of NBC Uni­ver­sal, said Fri­day that he would step down as chief ex­ec­u­tive af­ter be­ing told there won’t be a place for him once Philadel­phia cable gi­ant Com­cast Corp. takes over the com­pany at the end of the year.

Two weeks ago, Com­cast Chief Op­er­at­ing Of­fi­cer Steve Burke told Zucker that he wanted him to “move on” as soon as Com­cast takes con­trol of the me­dia con­glom­er­ate.

Fed­eral reg­u­la­tors are ex­pected later this year or early next to ap­prove the $30-bil­lion merger be­tween Com­cast’s en­ter­tain­ment prop­er­ties and Gen­eral Elec­tric Co.’s NBC Uni­ver­sal, which will cre­ate an en­ter­tain­ment jug­ger­naut that in­cludes the NBC broad­cast net­work, cable chan­nels in­clud­ing USA, Bravo, MSNBC, CNBC and E!, the Uni­ver­sal movie stu­dio and theme parks.

“It had be­come in­creas­ingly clear to me over the last few months that this was where we were headed,” Zucker said in an in­ter­view. “They spent bil­lions and bil­lions of dol­lars to buy the com­pany and they want to run it their way with their own peo­ple.”

Burke, the No. 2 ex­ec­u­tive at Com­cast, will be the one in charge. In re­cent months, Burke has been plan­ning an over­haul of NBC Uni­ver­sal’s man­age­ment so his new team will be ready on Day 1.

A top pri­or­ity is to pick a


new pro­gram chief for NBC’s trou­bled broad­cast net­work. Burke has had dis­cus­sions with Bob Green­blatt, for­mer Show­time en­ter­tain­ment pres­i­dent, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the talks. Green­blatt, a for­mer Fox ex­ec­u­tive, is cred­ited with mak­ing Show­time a des­ti­na­tion with provoca­tive, orig­i­nal shows.

Burke plans to di­vide the com­pany into four dis­tinct units: broad­cast tele­vi­sion, cable tele­vi­sion, sports and movies and theme parks.

He has not dis­cussed with se­nior NBC Uni­ver­sal ex­ec­u­tives whether they will be part of the mix, said peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the sit­u­a­tion.

Ron Meyer, the long­time head of Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios, and Dick Eber­sol, chair­man of NBC Uni­ver­sal Sports, are ex­pected to re­main in their po­si­tions, ac­cord­ing to sev­eral peo­ple.

Burke and Green­blatt de­clined to com­ment.

“This was not un­ex­pected,” said for­mer News Corp. Pres­i­dent Peter Ch­ernin, who last year ad­vised Com­cast when it was pre­par­ing its bid for NBC Uni­ver­sal. “Com­cast bought the com­pany and Steve wants to run it and he has ev­ery right to do that.”

Zucker will stay on for at least three to four months, un­til Com­cast as­sumes con­trol. Al­though most peo­ple had ex­pected him to leave NBC Uni­ver­sal at the com­ple­tion of the merger, the tim­ing of his an­nounce­ment took even some of his long­time lieu­tenants by sur­prise.

Af­ter he dis­cussed his fu­ture with Burke on Sept. 10, Zucker be­gan fi­nal­iz­ing his exit deal with his bosses at GE. Those con­ver­sa­tions con­cluded Thurs­day.

“In this day and age, you might as well an­nounce it,” Zucker said. “Things like that don’t stay quiet.”

In re­cent weeks, there had been some be­hind-thescenes ten­sion be­tween the two com­pa­nies be­cause ear­lier in the year Burke had told peo­ple that he in­tended to draft a new man­age­ment struc­ture at least three months be­fore the merger closed, or some­time in Septem­ber.

That led to con­sid­er­able spec­u­la­tion, and blog posts, about which ex­ec­u­tives would be in or out.

On Sept. 3, just as ex­ec­u­tives were leav­ing for La­bor Day week­end, GE Chair­man Jef­frey Im­melt sent a memo to NBC Uni­ver­sal’s top man­age­ment say­ing there would not be an an­nounce­ment of or­ga­ni­za­tional struc­ture in Septem­ber.

The spec­u­la­tion over who might sur­vive had be­come dis­tract­ing to top NBC Uni­ver­sal ex­ec­u­tives. Sev­eral in­sid­ers in­ter­preted Im­melt’s memo as a warn­ing to Com­cast ex­ec­u­tives to back off un­til they of­fi­cially took con­trol of the com­pany.

Com­cast will own 51% of the new ven­ture; GE will re­tain 49%.

Burke had ad­justed his plans for an­nounc­ing a struc­ture be­cause the deal is be­ing scru­ti­nized by the Jus­tice Depart­ment as well as the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion.

Peo­ple close to Burke said he didn’t plan to go pub­lic with a new man­age­ment team un­til it was clear the merger would be ap­proved by the govern­ment.

How­ever, a week af­ter Im­melt’s e-mail, Burke had the talk with Zucker.

Zucker, 45, who be­came CEO in 2007, has an an­nual salary of $6.3 mil­lion. He is ex­pected to leave NBC Uni­ver­sal with more than $20 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to a con­tract he ne­go­ti­ated late last year. The deal called for a dou­bling of his base salary and sev­eral per­for­mance bonuses.

Zucker’s ca­reer started off bril­liantly. In 1992, at age 26, the Florida na­tive was tapped as the youngest-ever ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of the “To­day” show. He built it into NBC’s most profitable as­set and helped turn Katie Couric into a star.

In 2001, Zucker was put in charge of all of NBC pro­gram­ming op­er­a­tions in Bur­bank, but he strug­gled to come up with a su­per­sized hit to re­place “Friends.”

Zucker re­turned to New York to a big­ger job, run­ning all of the com­pany’s tele­vi­sion prop­er­ties. In 2007, he took over the en­tire com­pany. He ag­gres­sively tried to ex­pand NBC’s port­fo­lio of cable chan­nels, in­clud­ing buy­ing Oxy­gen and the Weather Chan­nel, and sought to ex­pand in­ter­na­tion­ally. He shoved the com­pany into the In­ter­net age, and was an early ar­chi­tect of the on­line video web­site Hulu.

But he had sev­eral mis­fires, most no­tably hir­ing in­de­pen­dent pro­ducer Ben Silverman to de­velop pro­gram­ming for NBC — a two year dis­as­ter that caused NBC to tum­ble in the rat­ings. He also came up with the ill-fated de­ci­sion to shift Jay Leno to prime time, a scheme that dam­aged NBC’s rat­ings and those of lo­cal TV sta­tions that de­pend on rev­enue from their late lo­cal news­casts.

The Leno move blew up af­ter Zucker de­cided to shift him back to late night, which led to the messy de­par­ture of NBC’s late-night host Co­nan O’Brien. The LenoO’Brien fi­asco leaked in Jan­uary, the day Zucker was in Los An­ge­les in­tro­duc­ing Burke and Com­cast Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Brian Roberts to the troops.

In the in­ter­view, Zucker said that “in­tel­lec­tu­ally I com­pletely get what’s go­ing on” [but] “emo­tion­ally, it is a dif­fer­ent story.”

“I have spent my en­tire adult life here — 24 and a half years. You can’t be some­where for that long, know al­most ev­ery­body who works in the com­pany, know ev­ery nook and cranny, and not feel a deep emo­tional con­nec­tion.”

The fact that Burke didn’t want Zucker to stick around “should not be an in­dict­ment of ei­ther man or a ref­er­en­dum on Jeff ’s man­age­ment,” Ch­ernin said. “The ref­er­en­dum on Jeff was that he built the com­pany that Com­cast wanted to buy.”


An­drew H. Walker

The tim­ing of his an­nounce­ment took even some aides by sur­prise.

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