For two years, it was the worst-kept secret in the media and entertainment world. Jeff Zucker, the boy wonder with the P.T. Barnum shtick, was General Electric Co.'s (GE ) slam-dunk choice to replace Bob Wright as chief executive of NBC Universal Inc. Reading the tea leaves wasn't hard. GE CEO Jeffrey R. Immelt had barely bothered to interview outsiders for the job. Besides, so many top executives had left NBC Universal in recent months that few of Zucker's internal rivals were left standing.
Still, by Feb. 6, when GE finally got around to announcing what everyone already knew, skeptics had spent months wondering aloud if Zucker, 41, had the strategic vision and background to lead the $16 billion media company in a YouTube universe. Even Immelt acknowledges that complacency was partly to blame for NBC's slide from first to fourth place in prime-time ratings during Zucker's three years as head of the TV group. "It's actually hard to go from No. 1 to No. 4. When we were on top, we didn't take enough risks to get the next generation going," he says. "[We] stayed too true to what was Friends, what was formulaic."
Hence all the head-scratching among industry insiders, who continue to ask: Is Jeff Zucker the right guy to lead NBC Universal?
No one would deny that Zucker has had an extraordinary run. From the moment he took the reins of the Today show as executive producer at age 26, he impressed superiors with his energy, smarts, and willingness to take risks. While insiders credit former news chief Andy Lack with starting Today's turnaround, Zucker created buzz with features like outdoor concerts and fought hard to bring in the biggest names of the day. "Zucker made the first 20 minutes of that show must-watch TV," says an industry executive. Former co-host Katie Couric credits him with making the show "smart, hip, innovative, edgy." Zucker liked being in the control room, making things happen. "The show really played to my interests," he says. "I'm interested in everything."
By most accounts, Zucker had a rougher time when he headed to Hollywood in late 2000. He went there largely to reenergize a demoralized team--and won kudos for getting that done. But his new role as president of NBC Entertainment also required him to choose shows for the prime-time schedule. While Zucker characterizes his years in Los Angeles as an unalloyed success, his tactics were not universally applauded. Zucker earned a reputation for rubbing the town's delicate egos raw, and he raised eyebrows by switching shows around, including Scrubs, which ran in several time slots.
As he did at Today, Zucker instinctively went after the big splash. He made tactical moves that let NBC prolong its dominance. Keen to maintain the Friends advertising juggernaut, he extended each show by 10 minutes. In one stroke, he made it hard for people to tune in to rival networks. That was great for NBC; not so good for viewers. He also paid Friends' stars huge sums to stick around.
What he didn't do was dream up the next generation of programming. When it comes to picking hits, Zucker has had a decidedly mixed record. He championed Father of the Pride, an animated series about a family of lions, that made its debut in 2004. It bombed. What attracted him to the show, insiders say, was the pedigree of producer Jeffrey Katzenberg--another echo from his Today days, when getting the celebrity du jour was his stock in trade. A much-hyped Friends spin-off, Joey, was a disappointment, too. "People [tried] to criticize me for not finding the next ER or CSI," says Zucker. "We [hit] a bunch of doubles."
Maybe so, but his choices helped push NBC's prime time into free fall in 2004--sparking rumors that Zucker could be fired. Instead, he was promoted to head of the television group, adding the strong cable assets to his portfolio. Once again, Zucker had demonstrated a striking ability to win maximum applause for coups--bringing The Apprentice to NBC, for example--while deflecting heat for failure. Listen to him talk about NBC's ratings slump. "We had 10 unprecedented years of being on top," says Zucker, "followed by two years when we were not."
But Immelt himself was becoming frustrated with the poor performance at NBCU. After all, it was the only GE business to post shrinking profits last year. Before long, Immelt was coaching his protégé in weekly phone calls. Zucker got GE religion, embracing efforts to boost the bottom line. Mostly that meant taking an ax to production and marketing costs, and laying off 700 people, under a campaign benignly labeled NBCU 2.0. Meanwhile Zucker savvily demonstrated public support for such GE imports as Beth Comstock, who now oversees digital media, and new ad sales chief Michael Pilot, who came from GE's equipment-financing business.
NBC has clawed its way back up in ratings, thanks in large part to the success of the series Heroes. But there are other heroes, too. One is NBCU Sports & Olympics Chairman Dick Ebersol, who came up with the idea of bringing back Sunday Night Football, giving NBC a ratings boost and a place to promote new shows. Another is current entertainment chief Kevin Reilly. Zucker began giving him public support as ratings began to recover last fall.
But the big winner is Zucker, who sits astride an empire that includes a movie studio, theme parks, cable properties, the iVillage Web site, and NBC. Much of the business is doing fine--from the hugely profitable USA Network to the still dominant Today show. But to keep NBCU growing, Zucker will have to move beyond the short-term urgency of TV to deal with issues like piracy, globalization, new distribution models, and a shrinking audience for network TV. Wright, 63, was brilliant at looking around corners--positioning NBC for the onslaught of cable and launching CNBC before the market boom. "Bob had a great way to conceptualize the unknown," says Immelt. Wright is as comfortable talking about regulatory trends in Washington and Beijing as the latest technologies in Silicon Valley.
While Zucker acknowledges that "the biggest challenge for us to figure out is what we will look like in five years," some wonder if his DNA remains rooted in thinking about today. "He cares more about getting a rise out of [CBS (CBS ) chief] Les Moonves than figuring out what YouTube (GOOG ) does to his business," says one observer. Under his leadership, Zucker predicts NBCU will emerge more "optimistic, competitive, very sunny-side-of-the-street, very encouraging." Less certain is how he'll fare as a strategist.
Immelt, of course, expresses confidence Zucker will make NBCU a winner again. He says Zucker has the edge and creativity to make the best of a bad situation. "I like how tough he is," says Immelt. "I watched Jeff go to the bottom of the ocean, around the middle of last year. He never got negative." Immelt believes Zucker is a fast learner, noting that every CEO has to grow into the job. But Immelt also acknowledges the media and entertainment industry faces the toughest challenges of any of GE's businesses.
The question for Zucker is how long he has to prove his mettle. Although GE says it is in for the long haul, insiders buzz that Wright and others have looked hard at selling NBCU. As Zucker knows all too well, it will take more than bravado and political savvy to impress his boss.
By Diane Brady