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Cable Operators

Zucker Out; Who’s Next?

9/27/2010 2:24 AM Eastern

The Comcast era at NBC
Universal will begin without Jeff
Zucker.

In an announcement that was
perhaps more stunning within
NBC for its timing than elsewhere
in the industry, the one-time Today
show wunderkind who had
spent 24 years at the company
said he’d been told by Comcast
chief operating officer Steve
Burke that the cable giant wants a
fresh start when it finally gets the
go-ahead to close the acquisition.

The move may signal that more
dramatic changes are ahead for
the employees at NBC Universal,
who have been questioning their
future and jockeying for position.

Ultimately, the key question is
how Comcast’s oversight will affect
NBCU’s signature but struggling
NBC broadcast network and
its successful cable channels at a
time when the television industry
is looking for ways to make money
while viewers consume video
digitally online, via mobile devices
and on whatever other platforms
can be dreamed up.

NBC’s advertising customers
are hopeful that changes will be
for the better. “I think the industry
is pretty encouraged that Comcast
will do things differently than the
General Electric regime did with
NBC,” said Harry Keeshan, director
of national broadcast at media
agency PHD. “We need more competitions,
and they haven’t been
that competitive.”

The timing of the Zucker announcement
fits in with the expectation
of many industry
observers that Comcast would
announce its post-merger executive
structure for NBCU this fall.
Speculation is rampant around
what jobs a number of senior NBC
and Comcast executives are in
line for — and who will survive.
Burke, who is making the decisions,
is keeping his cards close
to his vest.

The first issue is whether Zucker
will be replaced or if the executives
running the NBCU business
will report directly to Burke. Rumors
have swirled about possible
replacements for months,
ranging from such names as Jeffrey
Katzenberg to no replacement
at all.

After that decision, there are a
variety of fiefdoms to be divvied
up: Who will be put in charge of
the broadcast network, currently
under Jeff Gaspin, NBC Universal
Television Entertainment’s chairman?
Former Showtime executive
Robert Greenblatt continues to be
a rumored target for Comcast.

The cable side of the business
begs similar questions: Will
someone be in charge of all the
cable networks, which now boast
several strong executives including
Jeff Shell and Ted Harbert of
Comcast and Bonnie Hammer
and Lauren Zalaznick of NBCU?
The jockeying for position in
those ranks was called “incredible”
by one NBCU executive last
week. Other areas, including ad
sales and distribution, are likely to
be consolidated, resulting in management
changes.

This week, Shell’s cable network
group will hold an offsite
meeting in California. While the
meeting was previously scheduled,
current events are likely to
be top of mind with the gathered
executives.

As CEO of NBC Universal,
Zucker tried to emphasize the
success of the company’s cable
networks and other assets while
criticism focused on problems at
the NBC broadcast network, particularly
in primetime, dating
back to when Zucker ran the entertainment
division.

His most radical move came
last year, when he gave Jay Leno
a nightly talk show at 10 p.m. The
thought was that a low-cost program
could make big profits even
if ratings were far below those attracted
by the dramas that usually
run in that time slot.

Ratings didn’t reach even
NBC’s low expectations and affiliates rebelled, forcing NBC to
make a change. That change resulted
in Conan O’Brien being
bought out by the network rather
than moving his Tonight Show
back to 12:05 a.m.

Then on Sept. 24, Zucker sent a
memo to NBCU staffers announcing
his plans to leave.


Jon Lafayette is business editor of
Broadcasting & Cable.
September