Jeff Zucker At The McGraw-Hill Media Summit: Jon Stewart/CNBC, Jay Leno, Cable Versus Broadcast, And Life Within GE

At today’s McGraw-Hill Media Summit, NBC Universal Jeff Zucker talked tough, cracked jokes, and, as executives do in such settings, gave carefully calibrated answers. Taken together, they painted the picture of a media executive currently fighting the fight of his life against a brutal and unyielding ad environment.

(Let’s get the disclosure thing over with right now: McGraw-Hill is the parent company of BusinessWeek, for which I write a media column. NBC Universal is the parent company of CNBC, for which I am an on-air contributor. You may see this as being doubly conflicted. Or you may decide the conflicts cancel each other out. Anyway: onward.)

On the future of NBC Universal within parent company GE: “I hope we’re there for a long time. Nothing lasts forever. I think NBC Universal has benefitted greatly from being part of GE. I hope that continues. I believe it will.”

The way in which Zucker answered the question caused some attendees to scratch their heads. But, more to the point: a sale requires a buyer. The simultaneous decline in debt markets and rival media companies combined with a steep price tag—NBC Universal did $15 billion in revenue and $3 billion in profit in '07, and one banker told me last summer it could fetch a pricetag of $40 billion--will likely keep them in place for at least the foreseeable future, and maybe for much longer than that.

On Jay Leno’s move to 10 PM: “'This is not a ratings play.” Indeed, he couched it in the context of an “attempt to change the model” of broadcast that’s lasted so long, and waved away the notion that NBC even sought the bragging rights of being tops in prime time(!), an arena in which they have been lagging.

“I don’t want to say ‘ratings don’t matter.’ They do. But they are not the only gauge of success.” He’s right, of course, but it’s hard to imagine NBC execs making this point at this spring’s network upfronts, the lavish annual ritual in which a great deal of advertising for the upcoming TV season is sold.

Zucker repeatedly stressed the health of NBC Universal’s cable units—at one point mentioning its USA Network in the context of the big broadcast nets, suggesting that it could stand with the titans of TV--and said that cable’s profits would hold steady in 2009. He pointed out that cable accounts for 60% of NBC Universal’s operating profit and went as far as to say “we are first and foremost a cable company,” implicitly hitching his company to the sector of traditional ad-supported media that’s fared the least-bad in the current environment.

And there were the inevitable questions regarding Jon Stewart, the Comedy Central host who has made great sport of chargrilling CNBC and especially its “Mad Money” host Jim Cramer.

Zucker’s initial response when asked for a reaction to Stewart: “Who?”

But then he declared Stewart’s (highly entertaining) critiques to be “unfair to CNBC and the business media general. Including BusinessWeek.” He added “just because someone who mocks authority says something, does not make it so.”

A highly unscientific dipstick-check into reaction on Facebook and Twitter found sentiment trending overwhelmingly against Zucker, which, given Stewart’s cultural bona fides, likely shouldn’t surprise.

This provides me with the opportunity to address the point brought up by MSNBC's Tucker Carlson in the Daily Beast. Carlson claimed that there is a "virtual ban" on criticizing Stewart in the press.

So, fine, allow me to actually agree with one aspect of Carlson's contention. Here goes: Did you ever see The Daily Show episode in 2004 where Stewart interviewed Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry?

Don’t. It’s awful.

Other accounts of Zucker's interview can be found here, here, here and here.

UPDATE 3/24: Full video of Zucker interview is here.

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