NBC chief defends role in late-night debacle

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The NBC executive who has overseen the network’s decline in recent years said on Monday he showed “guts” and “leadership” by shaking up the network’s late-night programing -- a disastrous move that will likely send talk-show host Conan O’Brien to a rival broadcaster.

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

Jeff Zucker, the president and CEO of General Electric Co’s NBC Universal entertainment unit, told PBS television interviewer Charlie Rose on Monday it was his job to take chances if he wanted to lift NBC out of the ratings mire.

“They don’t all work out,” Zucker said, according to a show transcript. “Nothing tried, nothing gained.”

NBC’s decision to boot ratings champ Jay Leno out of his “Tonight Show” perch and give the coveted 11:35 p.m. slot to “Late Night” host O’Brien set off a calamitous chain of events that has placed NBC management squarely in the crosshairs of the TV public and pundits.

An unhappy Leno was relegated to a five-night-a-week variety show at 10 p.m., a snub to the producers of prestige dramas that traditionally air in that slot. His ratings sank as soon as the show debuted in September, upsetting local affiliates because it affected viewership of their 11 p.m. newscasts. O’Brien’s ratings also tanked.

NBC announced on January 10 it was canceling Leno’s show and returning him to the 11:35 p.m. slot. An angry O’Brien refused to move “The Tonight Show” back by 30 minutes and is negotiating an exit that could cost NBC more than $30 million.

Paradoxically, Zucker’s shake-up was designed both to keep O’Brien at NBC and to save money.

“Obviously, in hindsight, you know, perfect information leads you to that conclusion -- that it was a mistake,” Zucker told Rose. “And I think it’s the sign of a leader to step up and say, you know, when something’s not working, to have the guts to reverse it.”

“Leadership is about taking chances and taking risks. And also, leadership is about acknowledging when they don’t work.”

Zucker has drawn sustained fire for years because NBC has struggled under his leadership.

The former breakfast-show producer took charge of NBC’s entertainment programing in 2000 and was promoted to his current post in 2007. In all that time, NBC has failed to develop a hit akin to “Seinfeld” or “Friends” or “ER.”

When Rose broached the topic of Zucker eventually being fired, Zucker said he was very proud of his work at NBC.

Reporting by Dean Goodman; editing by Todd Eastham