In any NBC Universal deal, drama surrounds Zucker

NEW YORK Mon Oct 5, 2009 9:49am EDT

NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker speaks during the McGraw-Hill Media Summit in New York, March 18, 2009. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker speaks during the McGraw-Hill Media Summit in New York, March 18, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker could be about to get a new boss -- and asked to explain a three-year run when his company expanded its cable business and won acclaim for its Olympic broadcasts, but failed to score a single breakout prime-time TV hit.

Zucker has much to lose in any NBC Universal deal by General Electric Co (GE.N), which, according to sources, is talking to Comcast Corp (CMCSA.O) about selling a majority stake in the media company.

He has spent his entire career there, starting straight out of college and taking over the chief executive's office in February 2007. At 44, he comes across as smart and hypercompetitive, harsh but self-deprecating.

"I would never underestimate the survival power of Jeff Zucker," said Vanity Fair columnist Michael Wolff.

"I suspect that in any deal that's going to be done, it is reasonably likely that he's intimately involved in it," he added. "That he'll make money off of it and that he sees the advantages in it for himself."

Under one plan being discussed, GE, which owns 80 percent of NBC Universal, would buy out partner Vivendi SA (VIV.PA). It would then sell a 51 percent stake to cable company Comcast, whose CEO Brian Roberts wants to build a media powerhouse.

Whether Zucker and Roberts could work together remains to be seen. Both are tough negotiators and share an interest in dealmaking: Roberts bought Adelphia in 2005 and AT&T Broadband in 2002, while Zucker bought the Oxygen channel in 2007 and The Weather Channel last year.

Considered a patient, mild-mannered executive, Roberts might allow Zucker to remain at NBC Universal. For one thing, Zucker brings a financial acumen to the media business and is a ruthless cost cutter.

"He's had an amazing run and exhibited quite a resiliency," said Miller Tabak analyst David Joyce.

Zucker also has decades of media experience, useful to Comcast. Along with the NBC broadcast network and cable channels like Bravo, USA and MSNBC, NBC Universal owns a movie studio, local TV stations and theme parks.

PAST AND PRESENT MEDIA STARS

One name, however, that could cause a stir is Steve Burke, the current second-in-command at Comcast and a former top executive at Walt Disney Co (DIS.N).

"My instinct would be that Jeff Zucker probably wouldn't be part of that company -- only because Brian Roberts and Steve Burke have worked very much in concert with one another," said Michael Burgi, the editor in chief of Mediaweek, which covers the television industry

"Burke in many ways has helped Comcast move from being a pole climber, a cable operator into a multimedia company."

Other past and present media stars who could be candidates to run NBC Universal include former News Corp (NWSA.O) Chief Operating Officer Peter Chernin and Tom Freston, one-time boss at Viacom Inc VIAb.N.

Zucker, who served as the editor of the Harvard Crimson student newspaper and became executive producer of the "Today" show at age 26, has struggled at times.

The chief criticism is his failure to lift the NBC broadcast network out of last place in prime-time ratings. It is an uncomfortable spot for any network but particularly wretched for one that owned TV in the 1990s with blockbusters such as "Seinfeld," "Friends" and "Frazier."

Industry observers credit Zucker with cutting costs by reducing the number of pilots NBC produces, and experiments like bringing late-night comedian Jay Leno to prime-time.

Another effort badly backfired. Two years ago, Zucker hired Ben Silverman, a young, popular producer, to kickstart NBC's prime-time schedule. A number of missteps followed, described by Time magazine as "a string of wild parties, gaffes and high-profile flops" before Silverman left NBC in July.

An advertising recession, writers' strike and digital video recorders have only exacerbated NBC's troubles. Zucker has acknowledged all these challenges, but would rather speak publicly about the success of its cable channels.

"NBC Universal, at its core today is a cable network company. That is who we are and that transition was critical," Zucker said at a Goldman Sachs conference last month.

Cable now makes up roughly 60 percent of NBC Universal's revenue. That is the very reason the company has caught the eye of Comcast -- and that may prove the best chance of staying aboard for Zucker, an avid tennis player and a cancer survivor.

"I cannot imagine him in any situation being helpless," said Wolff. "He's nobody's pawn."

(Additional reporting by Robert MacMillan in Toronto; Editing by Tiffany Wu, Gary Hill, Leslie Adler)

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