NBC Universal Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Zucker will step down once Comcast Corp. completes its takeover of the company as the new owners move to reshape management.
Zucker, 45, told employees in a memo today of his departure from the company where he has spent his entire working career. Parent General Electric Co. also announced the decision in an internal memo.
From executive producer of the “Today” show at age 26, Zucker rose to oversee all of NBC Universal by 2007 -- the broadcast network, the Universal Pictures film studio, theme parks and cable channels such as Bravo. His tenure was marred by falling ratings at NBC, which failed to develop new hits as popular shows like “Friends” left the air. His decision to put comedian Jay Leno in prime time backfired.
“Intellectually I’m fine and I get it and I’m very much at peace,” Zucker said in an interview. “Emotionally, it’s very hard.”
Zucker said he doesn’t know what his future plans will be and in the interview mentioned interests in sports, business and politics.
“You can’t spend 24 and a half years in one place, you can’t spend more than half your life in one place, and not feel an emotional attachment,” Zucker said. “Not waking up every day and walking into 30 Rock will be a very hard thing.”
Comcast, the largest U.S. cable operator, is expected to complete its purchase of 51 percent of NBC Universal by year end, GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt said in the memo.
Zucker will spend the next few months focused on ensuring a smooth transition to the new leadership team, Immelt, 54, said in his statement.
“I have said many times how much I admire Jeff’s leadership of NBCU,” Immelt said. “Jeff has been a tough-minded, inclusive and innovative leader of NBC Universal. He has always stepped up when the company needed him. He never blinked when it came to tough decisions.”
Zucker said he won’t seek a job at GE.
“GE has been an incredible steward of this company and supporter of mine,” Zucker said. “Nobody has been as good to me as Jeff Immelt, but I’m better at producing than aviation.”
Zucker’s departure was predictable, Larry Haverty, portfolio manager at Rye, New York-based Gamco Investors Inc., said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.
“Jeff Zucker had some very visible problems, the biggest one being the decision to go with Jay Leno, which basically relegated NBC to the basement,” he said.
Stephen Burke, Comcast Corp.’s chief operating officer, is expected to succeed Zucker, CNBC’s David Faber reported, citing people he didn’t identify. CNBC is a unit of NBC Universal. D’Arcy Rudnay, a spokeswoman for Comcast, declined to comment on possible successors.
“Comcast has an extraordinarily qualified individual in Steve Burke,” Haverty said. “This is what he has been preparing for most of his business career.”
Zucker said it became increasingly clear during the summer that Comcast wanted to install its own management, and that even if he stayed there would be far less autonomy. Two weeks ago, Zucker said Burke told him in a meeting that they wanted him to leave when the transaction was complete.
After the meeting, Zucker began negotiating his exit with GE, he said. An agreement was reached yesterday, and therefore the announcement was made today.
Zucker’s three-year employment contract, reported in a June regulatory filing, calls for about $19.6 million plus additional payments based on performance goals were he to exit before its end. Zucker and GE spokesman Gary Sheffer declined to comment.
“The success of NBC Universal puts us in a wonderful position as we plan for our joint venture with GE,” Brian Roberts, chairman and CEO of Comcast, said in an e-mailed statement. “We wish Jeff well in his future endeavors.”
GE, based in Fairfield, Connecticut, gained 52 cents, or 3.2 percent, to $16.66 at 4:15 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. Comcast, based in Philadelphia, advanced 65 cents, or 3.6 percent, to $18.57 on the Nasdaq Stock Market.
“Comcast will be a great new steward, just as GE has been, and they deserve the chance to implement their own vision,” Zucker said in his memo.
In 2007, Zucker succeeded Bob Wright, who helped create MSNBC and CNBC and merged NBC with Paris-Based Vivendi SA’s Universal studios. That same year Zucker hired TV producer Ben Silverman as chief of NBC Entertainment. Silverman left two years later.
In 2008, Zucker presided over the $3.5 billion purchase of the Weather Channel with private-equity partners Bain Capital LLC and Blackstone Group LP. At the end of that year, he pared 500 jobs across NBC Universal as advertising sales fell.
A Harvard College graduate with a bachelor’s degree in American History, Zucker started as a researcher in 1986 for NBC Sports’ coverage of the 1988 Seoul Olympics. By age 26, he was executive producer of the “Today” show and ascended to head NBC’s Los Angeles entertainment division in 2000.
The network fell to second place in prime time in the 2002-2003 season, according to Nielsen Co. data. NBC has since dropped further in the ratings, failing to find new hits to replace “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” and “E.R.,” the shows that contributed to its success in the 1990s and early 2000s.
‘Tonight Show’ Trouble
Zucker became president of the entertainment, news and cable group in 2003. In 2004, he was promoted to lead NBC Universal’s TV group.
That year, he designated Conan O’Brien as Jay Leno’s successor at “The Tonight Show,” a move that eventually took place in June 2009. As the change approached, Zucker offered Leno a prime-time show on weeknights at 10 p.m. to keep the talk-show host from defecting to another network. The move was also designed to reduce expenses by replacing dramas with a cheaper program.
The plan backfired by cutting the 11 p.m. audience for local news and sparking protests from NBC’s affiliate TV stations. NBC moved Leno back to “The Tonight Show” at 11:35 p.m. O’Brien left in January with a $33 million payout for himself and $12 million for his staff, a person with knowledge of the situation said in January.
“I wish I’d moved more quickly to fix NBC,” Zucker said.
In a Jan. 18 interview with Charlie Rose, Zucker said the experiment hadn’t been successful for NBC’s affiliates.
“It’s the sign of a leader to step up and say, you know, when something’s not working to have the guts to say let’s reverse it,” Zucker said. “Leadership is about taking chances and taking risks, and also leadership is about acknowledging when they don’t work.”