The longest running drama at NBC isn't Law and Order.
It's the saga of NBC-Universal President Jeff Zucker.
For 20 years, people in the industry have watched the programming Boy Wonder soar from his lowly research job at the Olympics division to run the entire network. And now he'll stay on to lead the venture created by this week's $30 billion deal between Comcast and NBC Universal.
But like any good thriller, Zucker's career has lurched from one cliffhanger to another. He survived corporate mergers and intrigue. He lived through two bouts with cancer. And somehow he prospered as he drove NBC's ratings and reputation off a cliff.
"One could say that Zucker completely dismantled the NBC brand and decimated 50 years of broadcast history," says Amanda Lotz, an associate professor at the University of Michigan who studies the television industry. Lotz has studied the rise and fall of NBC. And she points out that none of that got in the way of Zucker's climb up the corporate ladder.
On Thursday, there he was, between Comcast CEO Brian Robert and GE CEO Jeff Imalt sharing his vision for the new partnership.
"Looking for new opportunities, new revenue streams, new windows," Zucker told reporters on a conference call. "And to the degree that this combination can help facilitate that and speed up that process that's something that we're incredibly excited about."
Revenues. Windows. Facilitate. Zucker no longer talks like the journalist he once was.
But then again his story was always an unlikely concept for a TV hit. A young man just out of Harvard defers law school admission to take an entry-level job at NBC. First as a researcher for the 1988 Olympics, then as a producer on the Today show.
It was 1989 and the show was in trouble. There were tensions between the hosts and a weak executive producer. All this was perfect for someone as competitive as Jeff Zucker. By the age of 26, he was running the program and developing his executive style.
"I don't think there's anything more fun than being a producer," Zucker said recently on The Charlie Rose Show. "Where you try and tell a story. How you dealt with talent. I think there are many of those skills I've tried to use in my current job."
But its wasn't his people skills that catapulted Zucker to the top. The Today show has long been the most profitable show on television. And under Zucker it only raked in more money. Today was beating its competitors by 2 million viewers, and Zucker would eventually help it expand to four hours a day.
"The people running the company at that point saw him as a future CEO," says Bill Carter, TV writer for The New York Times. He profiled Zucker in his book Desperate Networks, recounting how Zucker ran into trouble with his next promotion, the head of NBC Entertainment in Los Angeles.
"The criticism of him came from him not being able to play the game the way Hollywood saw it. He didn't join the club. He didn't even actually move there. That built up a lot of resentment and made whatever mistakes he made, even more magnified," Carter says.
And oh, were there mistakes. When Zucker arrived in L.A., NBC was the number one network, riding high on hits like ER and Friends. Thinking like a show producer, Zucker just kept milking the shows for all they were worth. He promoted super-sized episodes and paid enormous sums to keep the programs on the air.
But he wasn't creating any new high-profile shows to keep NBC on top. "Zucker does not embrace television as art, " says Amanda Lotz, from the University of Michigan. "Zucker is more about the bottom line."
Which was great for corporate owners GE. Fantastic for Zucker's career. Terrible for NBC's ratings. Zucker followed up high-end shows like West Wing and Seinfeld with cheap reality hits like the The Apprentice and Fear Factor. And bombs like Joey and the animated series Father of the Pride. NBC dropped from 1st to last place in one season.
It didn't hurt the Zucker brand at all. He became president of NBC's television group in 2004. In 2007, he became president and CEO of NBC Universal. And the troubles continued. NBC began to lose money for GE, and its latest big move, scheduling Jay Leno's new talk show for each week night at 10 p.m., was panned by critics and affiliates.
Still, Zucker was having some success; it was just in the less visible parts of the company like the cable channels Bravo, USA and MSNBC.
"GE authorities were impressed with him. They were impressed with his performance, with his management skills, and his ability to have a vast sweep in what he could handle," says writer Bill Carter.
And so when Comcast came looking for TV and cable assets, they decided that Jeff Zucker should be part of the package — at least for now, as the deal works its way through the government approval process. If the joint venture goes off without a hitch, Zucker will have written a whole new storyline for himself.